Whisper it quietly but there is a feeling that Scottish rugby could finally be emerging from an utterly dreadful spell of two decades in the international doldrums.
A supremely proud nation’s supporters have had to endure misery, heartache and plenty of embarrassment since winning the last ever Five Nations Championship back in 1999. Since the introduction of Italy to the fold in 2000, Scotland have failed to win a single Six Nations title – in 17 years. The only surviving country of the old Five Nations committee not to have done so.
They are the not so proud owners of four wooden spoons in the Six Nations era, second only to Italy’s 11. They also own the following, quite astonishing stat – in 17 campaigns there has only been one in which they’ve won more games than they have lost. That was 10 years ago in 2006 when they won three and lost two.
Three of their wooden spoons have come in the last decade, but under the leadership of scrum-half Greig Laidlaw there is finally cause for optimism. Scotland have won eight of their last 14 games and really impressed at last year’s 2015 Rugby World Cup where they were only robbed of a place in the quarter-finals by a hugely controversial 35-34 loss to Australia in what was arguably the game of the tournament.
They carried that momentum into this year’s Six Nations. Although the Murrayfield outfit lost three of their five games and finished fourth, the Scots posted a points difference of +7 and their biggest defeat was a close 35-25 loss to Ireland.
Laidlaw broke a 24-year-old record in that game by winning his 26th cap as captain, surpassing David Sole. Though he acknowledges the landmark, Laidlaw would much rather be known as the captain which led Scotland back to glory.
“It means a great amount to me to be the most capped captain but I want to be a successful captain too and that’s ultimately how I’ll be judged,” the 30-year-old Edinburgh-born schemer tells Sport360.
“I’d love to win something with the national team. The sooner I do that the better so we’ll be pushing next year in the Six Nations. To win something with Scotland would be special.”
The Gloucester half-back was in the UAE last month, holding coaching sessions with Abu Dhabi Harlequins youngsters and pupils at the British School Al Khubairat.
Laidlaw, an ambassador for the Harnser Group, is excited by the future for Scotland following encouraging signs at the World Cup and Six Nations, especially considering they began 2015 with five defeats and the tournament’s wooden spoon.
“Things are looking good for Scotland for the first time in a few years,” said Laidlaw, who believes the success of the country’s two club sides Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors are aiding the national team’s improving fortunes.
“We feel as though we’ve changed the mindset of the group. We had a good World Cup and after a tough start to the Six Nations we bounced back strongly.
“You can see we’re moving forward. We’ve got some good young players coming through, playing consistently well at Edinburgh and Glasgow, and that’s giving us consistency in the national team under a very clever national coach in Vern [Cotter], who’s starting to get the best out of the group.
“The future’s certainly looking brighter. We finished fourth this year [in the Six Nations]. We wanted to finish higher but it’s better than fifth and it’s better than sixth. So we’ve moved it forward.
“Next season we want to try and finish third, second or first, inch it forward and start building something in that Scottish jersey. There’s a really good feeling within the group. The environment’s been set, it’s a no excuses culture and it’s a fun environment to be in.”
Laidlaw has earned huge praise for his leadership skills since fortuitously having the captaincy bestowed upon him on the 2013 tour to South Africa following injury to Kelly Brown. Ross Ford, the third most-capped Scottish player ever (97), labelled him one of the country’s greatest ever captains earlier this year.
He is 14th on the list of most successful skippers to have led Scotland on at least 10 occasions, with a 42 per cent win ratio (11 wins, 15 defeats). It is some way behind Dan Drysdale’s 73 per cent mark but is bettered only by Sole, Gavin Hastings, Gary Armstrong, Bryan Redpath, Jason White and Alastair Kellock of the 12 men to captain Scotland in the last 25 years.
He is quick to praise head coach Cotter though for turning Scotland’s fortunes around. The New Zealander has won 12 of his 26 games in charge since taking over from Australian Scott Johnson in 2014. Cotter’s 46 per cent win ratio is the best of any Scotland coach since Ian McGeechan’s 58 during his first reign between 1988 and 1993.
“He’s had a big impact,” Laidlaw said of Cotter. “He’s stripped it back to the bare bones and gone back to the values of what it means playing for Scotland.
“Vern gets the best out of the group. He knows us extremely well. He doesn’t let a lot of people see what he’s about, just the group. His knowledge of the game is second to none. The way he coaches he puts us under pressure to get the best out of us day in day out so when we need to pull it out of the bag we can.”
Laidlaw has only just turned 30 but knows the end of his career is closer than the beginning. He still has plenty of goals, like leading Scotland to glory, as well as earning selection on a maiden British & Irish Lions tour. If he is to make that dream a reality, he knows next year’s daunting trip to world champions New Zealand likely represents his last chance.
“The Lions is the pinnacle of rugby,” said Laidlaw. “The Lions is an incredible establishment, an incredible thing and anyone involved would be delighted to pull on that jersey. It’s a personal aim for me. It’s an aim for everybody.
“It’s something I’m extremely passionate about. I want to be the best player I can be and if that gets me on that tour it would be absolutely brilliant.
“It’s a long way away. There’s a huge amount of rugby to be played between now and then. I’ll take each game and each competition as it comes. But you want to put yourself in a position to get selected and need a bit of luck too.”
Luck is something that deserted Laidlaw in 2013 when he didn’t make Warren Gatland’s squad despite being in good form for former club Glasgow and Scotland. Ireland’s Conor Murray, Wales’ Mike Phillips and England’s Ben Youngs were the three scrum-halves, and Laidlaw admits it’s a big gap on his CV.
“It’s missing from a lot of players’ careers,” he said. “It’ll be my last chance. I won’t be playing probably the next time it comes around, well I might be, you never know, but I’d love to be there (next year).
“My form needs to be good at the right time. I need to be fit and playing well, so until the time comes I won’t think too much about it. It’s going to be tough because we’ve got great players in that position. I think to go to New Zealand also is the hardest test.
“What stands out for me I feel is my knowledge of the game, my skill-set, a good temperament, so hopefully all these things add up and the coaches select me. We’ll wait and see.”
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