Scotland’s hopes of recording a first Calcutta Cup victory in 10 years will rest fairly heavily on the right boot of Greig Laidlaw.
The scrum-half returned to Gregor Townsend’s starting XV a fortnight ago and turned in a perfect performance from the kicking tee to edge his side to a 32-26 win. It was rich reward for the work that had gone in to get him back on the pitch.
Laidlaw was still in the infancy of his Clermont career when he fractured his ankle during a Champions Cup win over Ospreys in October. It was a cruel blow for a player who had missed the majority of last year’s Six Nations with a similar injury.
He did not let his head drop, though, instead dedicating up to six days a week to his rehabilitation programme with a zeal that left his new coaches in central France searching for superlatives.
“He was on a mission,” Philippe Gardent, one of the coaches who oversaw Laidlaw’s recovery at Clermont, told ESPN. “He never got down. He had a lot of frustration in him and he tried to feed himself with that frustration, to get better as soon as possible. That’s what he did.”
Gardent knows what it means to be in peak physical condition having spent two years in the NFL with the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers just over a decade ago.
He set the Scottish scrum-half, 32, targets to ensure that he would be back in a Clermont shirt before the start of the Six Nations. Laidlaw was given two objectives, and according to his coach achieved the higher one every time.
But Laidlaw’s working week did not begin and end with his rehab. The former Edinburgh and Gloucester player ensured that he attended tactical sessions too in order to get to grips with the way that his new club functioned.
“He jumped into the opportunity of getting better in every single way. He did more than what we asked him,” Gardent added. “He got involved in the tactics, the calls, he came to every meeting to make sure that he didn’t miss anything.”
There were kicking sessions too, and Gardent admitted to mixed feelings as he watched his colleague amass six match-winning penalties against France.
“Good for him, bad for France,” he said. “I’m not happy it happened against us but it happened and I was happy it was him.”
Clermont fullback Nick Abendanon had been delighted to welcome another English speaker to the club, but then had to watch on as his new teammate worked tirelessly to regain his fitness.
“He’s a very professional player, Abendanon told ESPN. “You can see that if he’s got his mind set on something then he sticks to it. He’s got back and looks in fine form.”
He added: “He refused to be frustrated with it because he had been out for a number of months at Gloucester with an ankle injury, he had surgery on it and then he re-did it.
“It’s almost an international player’s worst nightmare coming to a French team and that happening, because it’s difficult enough to integrate into the French way of life, the French way of playing, training and also the language barrier.”
That strength of character will be required again when England visit Murrayfield on Saturday. Laidlaw’s experience and ability to manage games could prove vital to Townsend’s side, according to former Scotland scrum-half Rory Lawson.
“Greig’s experience of understanding the times to put the foot on the ball and just control the tempo and possession, and potentially make a few decisions that are a little bit more conservative, shone through in the French game,” Lawson told ESPN.
“Saturday is a different challenge altogether. Scotland are coming up against probably the form team in the world, it’s a big challenge and Scotland are undoubtedly big underdogs for the game.
“But there will be a belief. One of Greig’s biggest strengths is his rugby brain and his determination. I do think Scotland are going to have to play high-tempo and stress England and get some front-foot ball.
“That’s going to be the biggest challenge, the English defence is very strong and some of the Scottish ball carriers have got to provide front-foot ball that gives Greig and the half-backs, the decision makers, quality of ball that they can create threats with.”