Thursday at Murrayfield. Greig Laidlaw looks over an empty arena. It is tempting to chronicle his career in a series of kicks, some of them in the teeth, but the deserted patch of grass surrounded by deserted stands holds a comforting familiarity.
‘I used to go there when I was younger on my day off,’ he says of his visit to the national stadium. ‘The kitman would get a bag of balls out and I would kick and kick.
‘I like kicking in an empty stadium, having the feeling of being there. I understood there was going to be noise on match day, but you have to remember it’s the same skill in the same stadium.
‘Murrayfield can be a difficult place to kick in the wind. So it was about practising and I did it after squad sessions, too. Extras, extras, extras.’
Laidlaw, 34, is no longer a Scotland player. But his professional life is still littered with kicks and passes in his role as scrum-half at Clermont Auvergne.
Sitting later in the day in the studio of his tailors, Andrew Brookes, in the centre of Edinburgh, Murrayfield in a bespoke Scotland jersey now seems far away. ‘It feels weird,’ he says of being in the vicinity of a Calcutta Cup match, but not truly in it.
Yet retirement from international duty has offered a chance to reflect on how the boy from Jedburgh became the man who led his country and what he learned along the way in the hardest of schools.
He admits candidly that there was a spell when he did not enjoy playing for his country, confesses to feeling the pressure of having to take vital penalties and addresses the criticisms he faced.
He does all of this without rancour, indeed with a smile. ‘I would always laugh when people talked about not playing quickly,’ he says, genuinely amused.
‘I would find it hilarious. If we are on the front foot, you play quickly. If not, you can’t.’
Of captaining his country , he says: ‘The sense of responsibility is what affects you most. It really hits when you walk out at Murrayfield and you hear the noise, feel the noise. Club rugby is your job and you put everything into it, but international rugby is different. It affects the way people feel. You see people in the street happier after a win.’ He cites former Scotland coach Vern Cotter: ‘He used to say that people don’t come to the game to watch us, they come to see themselves.
‘That means it’s about the culture and history of Scottish people and that sense of pride. It’s about the supporters being proud of being Scottish when they leave the game. I liked that. It was a big part of what I believed in.’
It revitalised Laidlaw. ‘There was a time just after I was made captain when I was not playing well, taking too much on myself and it was affecting my everyday life,’ he says of a spell when the game he loved was becoming a business he found burdensome.
‘I was trying to do everything myself instead of delegating. I was having that feeling that maybe people weren’t caring as much about it as me. But it all changed under Vern. His enthusiasm, his bloody-mindedness infected me. He would say: “We are not losing any more”. I loved that attitude.’
Cotter also brought in a leadership group. ‘That helped me massively,’ admits Laidlaw. ‘I then realised I was not in this on my own. I saw the boys cared as much as me. Then I started playing better.’
THE joy had returned. It had been bred into him in Jedburgh. Coached by his dad, having Roy Laidlaw, the great scrum-half as his uncle and Gary Armstrong, the legendary No 9, as a constant presence at the rugby club, the tyro seemed to have been formed in perfect laboratory conditions.
‘I loved mini rugby,’ he says when asked of his earliest memories of the sport. ‘I remember we went to a tournament at St Andrews for a couple of days. I enjoyed the camaraderie, that feeling of having not a care in the world.
‘That sowed the seed. I was about seven, but basically my childhood was spent kicking balls about, rugby balls for the most part. That was a huge part of my life growing up.’
He adds: ‘I was in close proximity with legends. I would see Gary Armstrong around about the rugby club or in the street. It was that sense of being in the presence of a legend, but he was an everyday person, too. I remember him signing for Newcastle and that was the first time I realised you could make a living out of this.’
That was in 1995 when Laidlaw was but a boy, but one who went on to play for Edinburgh and Gloucester before signing for Clermont in 2017 and gaining 76 Scotland caps along the way. There is a photograph of a seven-year-old Laidlaw with Uncle Roy and legend Gary. The bond continues more than a quarter of a century on.
‘If I ever needed anything, I could pick up the phone to him,’ he says of Armstrong. ‘He’s a good man.’ Of Roy, he says: ‘He has been in that environment of international rugby, too. The game has changed — but some things remain the same and that includes the same pressure of playing for Scotland. It’s been invaluable being able to talk to him.’
This support system has nurtured him but Laidlaw does not shy away from identifying personal factors that have driven him.
‘A lot of good players have not reached the very top level because the stress and the worry became too much. But it gives you confidence if you know you can execute under pressure. ‘The key? I have always been competitive. I don’t want to come second. I was never interested in that. I probably had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. My aim is to push myself to be the best version of me and, if I can do, that then maybe I can win more than I lose.’
The focus was always there. He had a decision to make at 12 whether to choose football or rugby as scouts from the round-ball game were offering trials. It hardly constituted a dilemma.
‘Rugby has always been a huge part of my life. I was never really interested in school. My passions lay elsewhere and I have been able to chase them down,’ he says.
The Cauldron. It is an apt nickname for the Stade Marcel- Deflandre, home of La Rochelle rugby club, and Laidlaw is standing over a penalty. There are drummers, a brass band, a chorus of boos. He knocks the ball between the posts to garner three points for Clermont. It is what he does.
‘That’s one of the great parts of playing in France,’ he says of an atmosphere that would paralyse a more timid soul.
‘It’s awesome. Somewhere like Rochelle? It’s pumping. The band is playing, they are booing the heck out of you. I have come to love that part of French rugby culture.’
But he is not immune to the noise or unaware of the pressure. It hits every time. He watches the pack celebrate as they win a penalty and has the same thought.
‘You are thinking: “What are you celebrating for? I have still to put it over. I have to deliver again”.’
He immediately settles when he picks up the ball. The routine brings the intimations of calm. The ball is placed on the tee.
‘If I am kicking the ball well, I won’t say anything to myself. If I am kicking not too well, I will tell myself: “Stay tall on the left-hand side, follow through, it’s going to go over the posts”.
‘I have always counted numbers. I am looking at the post, counting numbers, back to the ball, counting numbers, back to the post, counting numbers. They are random numbers.
‘I don’t know where it came from. I seem to remember doing it when I was younger. The numbers take me back to the empty stadium. It should be different because there is maybe 70,000 in the stadium and however many millions watching at home. And even a brass band. But the numbers bring me focus.’
Laidlaw had kicked points to win a match for Scotland 11 times. That is, he stood over the ball with the fate and the emotions of his team-mates and countrymen at his feet. And booted the ball between the posts.
‘I don’t really remember those winning kicks, maybe one or two. But I remember the ones I missed.’
The most painful? ‘Two. I missed one against New Zealand at Murrayfield. It wasn’t the hardest kick in the world. I quit on it, fell into the left and missed on the right. I was thinking about beating the All Blacks rather than worrying about the kick.’
Scotland lost that match in November 2014 by 24-16.
‘The second one was the quarter-final against Australia,’ he says of the World Cup match in October 2015. ‘I hit the ball beautifully that day. I only missed one kick. Wide on the left. There was synthetic grass on the side of the field and I just caught my studs on it in the run up. I pulled the kick badly. I still think about that. What did we get beat by, a point?’ Scotland lost 35-34.
He plans to play on for another three years, to coach in the future and to build a career in business while building a family life with his two sons and his wife, Rachel.
‘It is powerful,’ he says of the lesson of looking between the posts and finding that pressure can not only be overcome but embraced. ‘I enjoy it,’ he adds.
‘Understanding how you can deal with pressure is a great thing. It comes in obvious moments: standing in the tunnel at Murrayfield to run out first with 14 boys behind you, essentially looking to you to see how you are reacting.
‘Or in the changing room where a young player earning his first cap might be watching you. You train yourself to handle that pressure.’
It comes with a kick. It is the most powerful of substances.
Andrew Brookes Tailoring offers luxury custom tailoring, highlandwear and upper casual wear. For more information, visit www.andrew-brookes.com or call +44(0)131 225 3659.