The Maori have this idea about tribes and the sun.
The way they see it, every person is part of a chain of people that goes back to our first ancestors. The sun first shone on them, and then moved on to the next generation, or tribe. So all of us have our time in the sun. When the sun moves on, our legacy will be defined by how we used that time.
Lovely idea, isn’t it? I have thought a lot about that concept, especially since I retired as Scotland captain. And it has led me to ask some questions of myself.
Like, you know, Did I use my time as I should have?
How do I feel about my career?
What did it all mean?
Well, let me say right away that it wasn’t all just fun. But, of course, it never could be.
Captaining Scotland was always far too important for that.
As a normal kid in Scotland, you might choose rugby.
As a Laidlaw growing up in Jedburgh, rugby kind of chooses you.
Sure, maybe I could have done other stuff. I was a half-decent footballer, and I loved my tennis. But with my family history, it was never going to happen. My dad played rugby. My three cousins played rugby. And my uncle Roy, well … if you don’t know your rugby history, he was captain of Scotland, played for the Lions and won the Grand Slam in 1984.
Didn’t do too badly, did he?
So I think it’s fair to say that I was always going to give rugby a crack!
Looking back, rugby to me was like water is to a fish, if that makes sense. My hometown, Jedburgh, is in the Scottish Borders, which is the heartland of Scottish rugby. At home we’d discuss rugby tactics around the dinner table. When I began at my first rugby club, Jed-Forest, my dad, David, was the coach, and my mum, Lorna, would be down at the fields making the teas. I played there with two of my cousins, Clark and Scott. There was even a tribal element to my extended family. When I’d meet up with Uncle Roy and my cousins, we’d call ourselves the Laidlaw Clan.
As a kid, though, I never thought about making a career out of it. But that changed one day in April 2000, when I went with my dad to Murrayfield.
Scotland were playing England and the whole country was relishing it. You know those memories where everything just seems magical, like a fairy tale? Well, this was one of those. We hadn’t beaten the Auld Enemy in 10 years. It was a good old Scottish day, absolutely freezing, rain pouring down. Shocking, really. There were puddles forming on the pitch. I can still smell the cigars my dad was puffing, and the hops from the brewery across the road. The players were absolutely flying into each other, and when Duncan Hodge led us to victory, we all went mad. Some were even trying to storm the pitch!!
I already knew then what rugby was about, but to really be there, at 14, to see us lift the Calcutta Cup, that instilled something in me.
That day I knew I wanted to play for Scotland.
I wanted to be part of this madness.
Soon I could see the pieces coming together. I knew I had a bit of talent, because I was doing well for the youth teams. I left school when I was 16 because I felt it just wasn’t for me — and trust me, my teachers did too.
Also, rugby was starting to become professional. So I was like, Right, I can see what’s gonna happen here. Let’s have a crack at this.
Playing in Jed was brutal, though. I was this wiry kid, chucked in with the farmers and the builders. Some were in their early 30s, real seasoned men with arms the size of my thighs. There were no airs or graces, let’s put it that way. I was also dropped from a couple of teams, and when I was 17 I dislocated my kneecap, which put me out for close to a year. That isn’t ideal at that age, because people start picking you up in the academies. You think, I might not crack this. I might not get picked.
But then Todd Blackadder signed me up at Edinburgh, and the next day I’m walking into Murrayfield to greet players like Chris Paterson and Mike Blair. I was so nervous. So excited.
I hardly said a word those first six months. I just got on with it. Be patient, wait for your chance.
And the real big one … work like a madman.
Even back then I prided myself on being one of the hardest workers in the room. My parents worked silly hours to make sure we had a nice house and holidays, so I’d always assumed that, to get anywhere in life, I had to graft the same way. Actually … this might sound funny, but I was working as a carpenter at the time, and my boss was a superb craftsman who taught me to take real pride in my work. So whether I was putting together a staircase or polishing off a door, I wanted to do it well, and that translated to my game.
As a normal kid in Scotland, you might choose rugby. As a Laidlaw growing up in Jedburgh, rugby kind of chooses you.- Greig Laidlaw
So I was always working on my game. To give you an example, even though Chris Paterson was the first-choice kicker, I kept practicing my kicking. It seemed like a waste of time to others, but I knew that when he retired one day, I would want to be ready. When he did retire, I was.
So yeah, hours and hours and hours of training. The “born with talent” stuff? It’s nonsense. The grafters are the ones you hear about.
Anyway, long story short, I played eight seasons at Edinburgh, three as captain. At first I played to impress other people. Then I learned that your career — your life — is all about being the best version of yourself.
Take care of that, and your dreams tend to come true.
I can still remember Andy Robinson telling me that I’d be involved for Scotland vs. New Zealand, who were No. 1 in the world (as usual). I grabbed the phone and called my parents, who were over the moon. Were we getting ahead of ourselves? Oh absolutely! We just couldn’t help it.
If you understand one thing about me, let it be this: I am extremely proud to be Scottish. I’m extremely proud to be a Jed boy. I love the rugged landscape, the rivers, the quiet towns and the Highlands. For being such a small country, we have so many beautiful places.
Playing for Scotland, like Uncle Roy had done, had always been a dream of mine.
That whole week my teammates were coming up to congratulate me, knowing it was my first cap. It was like getting a promotion on your birthday on Christmas Eve.
Come the weekend we’re playing the All Blacks in an Autumn International. This is on a cold November day in 2010, and more than 55,000 people are packed into Murrayfield. I’m on the bench, as nervous as I’d ever been. If you’ve ever played sports, you know the feeling. You’re thinking, Oh wow, imagine if I come on!
But you’re also going, Crikey, imagine if I actually have to come on??
Then Mike Blair gets a knock to the head, and I can hear a crackling voice on the radio saying, “Get Greig down there.” Am I really about to do this?? A few minutes later, I’m on. Surreal as it is, I’m a Scotland international.
My parents and Uncle Roy were there watching. That cap was a big moment for us as a family, and I took real pride in that. Seeing another Laidlaw in the Scotland jersey, that was really cool. In a way, that was me saying thank you for the support.
Without them, I would never have made it that far. That’s for sure.
Three years later we were playing South Africa on the summer tour. Kelly Brown got injured, and I was offered the captaincy.
I was taken aback, to be honest. What an honour.
But in the first couple of games I was naive. I thought it was going to be easy stuff and, you know, Oh, you’ll learn along the way. That’s not how it works.
You see, I didn’t just want to play for Scotland. I wanted to win for Scotland.
I think I’d captained Scotland a few times when I went to Uncle Roy for advice. I was back in Jed playing golf, and we met up for a chin-wag. I told him about the pressure I felt as captain — from the fans, the press, the coaches and my own teammates. The scrutiny was tremendous. If you let them down, you let down five million Scots as well.
I said, “So, Uncle Roy … what should I do?”
He paused. For a moment it was like he was reliving his own career, drawing out the lessons he remembered. Then he told me something that I have never forgotten.
He said, “Son, do not focus on anything except rugby.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Forget everything else. The press? Let them write. Fame, rumours, opinions, ignore it all. Just play your best rugby, and people will follow you.”
It was a simple bit of advice really, but it was what I needed to hear at the time. Coming from Roy, I regarded it as absolute truth.
I didn’t just want to play for Scotland. I wanted to win for Scotland.- Greig Laidlaw
He had another thing to share, by the way.
He said — and he still says this….
“You know, it’s not easy being Scottish.”
I was like, “What?”
He said, “In my era, we had some tough times, too.” Even on the legendary team he played with, Scotland would struggle. That instilled some realism in me. We’re a small country. If we’re going to win titles, we have to really punch above our weight.
So I just swore that, whatever happened, I would leave the team in a better place than when I found it.
We did have some good times. Beating Australia in Australia in 2012 was awesome. The World Cup three years later was outstanding. Beating France at Murrayfield in 2016 was huge. That was my 50th cap, and we hadn’t beaten France in 10 years.
But the big one was the Calcutta Cup in 2018. It means so much to beat England, and again, we hadn’t won that cup in a decade. That day we were playing the kind of free-flowing rugby that the Scottish fans love to see. The defence was steely as well. It was the complete Scottish performance, one of the best in my time. You could sense it in the stands at Murrayfield. Actually, as I was looking at our fans, I remembered the day I had watched Scotland beat England with my dad. I realised that my places had been switched. Back then I had been a kid looking down. Now I was the captain out there, looking up.
When we went home that night, let’s just say that we were in high spirits.
About that video, well … what can I say? We were having fun. We’d had a bit too much to drink, that’s for sure. We were well worn out by the time we rolled into bed, and the next morning, I woke up real rough and checked my phone.
PING! PING! PING! PING! PING!
I was like, Oh crikey, what’s happened here?
Finn found out that his girlfriend had recorded a video and put it up on Instagram. He was telling her to take it down, but of course it was too late.
The whole country had woken up to see me and Finn in a club, hammered. I’m undoing one of the last buttons on my shirt, and we are all swaying back and forth, belting out “Flower of Scotland.”
PROUD EDWARD’S AAAAAAAAAARMYYYYY
AND SENT HIM HOOOOOOOMEWAAAAAAAAARD
TAE THINK AGAAAAAAAAAIN
Ultimately, I think people took it for what it was. You could see the fun we were having, and the camaraderie that is so crucial in a rugby team. We had been under a lot of pressure that game. We had prepared all week, we had worked so hard on our game and our tactics. When the whistle blows, and it’s all been worth it, the emotional release is just enormous.
I would say that the first 10 seconds are euphoria, and then you can start enjoying it.
On that occasion, we made sure we did. :-)
About two years later, in 2019, my time with Scotland was officially over. And listen, I’m not even embarrassed to say it.
When it ended, I cried.
I was in France when I confirmed it. The World Cup hadn’t gone great, and I felt it was time for Scotland to start a new cycle. I also had two kids to take care of. And yet it was the hardest sporting decision I’d ever had to make, because it had been such a big part of my life. When you’re standing in the tunnel at Murrayfield, and you can feel the atmosphere, and you’re at the front of the line … the boys are behind you, the country is behind you. Your neck hairs stand up, the adrenaline is pumping, and then you run out there….
You cannot describe that feeling. I just always made sure never to take it for granted.
Now, I was sure I was going to miss it badly.
I had thought a lot about my decision, though, so I had accepted all that. What I wasn’t prepared for was how others would react to my retirement.
I remember I went out for a drive after the news had broken. I was sort of matter-of-fact about it, like, It’s my decision, it’s done now, let’s all get on with our lives. Then I got a message from a friend of mine back in Edinburgh, and he was saying, “Mate, I’ve just seen the news, I can’t believe it, I’m literally in tears up here.”
That was when I broke down, too. I had spent half my life thinking about what playing for Scotland meant to me.
I’d never fully realised how much it meant to others.
You know, I’m not sure what it’s like to land on the moon. But as a boy from Jed, moving to Japan must be pretty close.
The Japanese took a real liking to me during the World Cup. They respect hard work and humility, and I always tried to show that. When I had a chance to play here, I grabbed it with both hands because, well, you only have one career, and this was an adventure I really fancied. So since 2019 I have been living in Tokyo Bay with my wife, Rachel, and our two boys.
We love it, we really do. The people here are awesome. The food is amazing. It’s like in the movies: seas of people, lights everywhere. Drive over the Rainbow Bridge at night and head into the concrete jungle — that’s the best way to see it.
I almost have to laugh now when I think about Jed. Still love that place, but in my time we didn’t even have a cinema. Going to Tokyo has been like travelling into the future.
The language and the culture can definitely be hard. There are days when we all think, Bugger it, let’s just move back to Scotland. Let’s pack up.
But, like in rugby, it’s been worth riding out the tough times to see the good. The boys go to international school here, and when they come home and start saying stuff in Japanese … well, those moments make it all worth it.
Obviously, I can see the end coming now. I’m not sure how many years in rugby I have left. So it’s only natural to look back at your own career.
Every time I do, I draw two conclusions.
The first is that, as much as you loved the adrenaline, what you really do miss are the people. You remember the men you went to battle with, and drank with when it was all over. People like Chris Paterson, Ross Ford, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg … I could name many more.
A special mention to Finn, who came in as this chirpy, almost cocky lad, really enjoying his rugby. I was always very serious. I remember looking at him and going, Ah, you know what? I think you’ve probably got this right. Finn helped me have a bit more fun, and he really brought the best out of me. Hopefully I brought some good things out of him, too.
This is the thing you have to understand, though. I could never be exactly like Finn. Not just because it wasn’t in my nature, but because I was the captain.
When you have such responsibility — when you are representing the country, the jersey and the people that you love with all your heart — it becomes impossible to just enjoy it. At least it was for me. If I had a game coming up, I would dedicate every single hour to make sure we won it. I’d have tens of thousands of people looking at me, judging me.
If we lost, I knew that I, as captain, would bear the most responsibility.
So no, I could never just enjoy it.
If I’m completely honest, when I did retire, I was actually feeling kind of … relieved.
And please do not misunderstand me here.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to play for Scotland anymore. It was more that the pressure was off. The scrutiny was gone. I could lean back, take a deep breath and enjoy things a bit more. I could be a normal person again.
I could finally accept that my time in the sun was over. It was time for someone else to shine.
I had spent half my life thinking about what playing for Scotland meant to me. I’d never fully realised how much it meant to others.- Greig Laidlaw
One last thing before I sign off. When I look at myself in the mirror, I know that I gave absolutely everything. I put every fibre of my being — mentally and physically — into succeeding for Scotland.
For sure, there was a lot of pressure on me. But I wanted that pressure. Captaining Scotland is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I’m extremely proud to be a small part of its history.
I’m still so happy that rugby chose me. I’m so happy for everything that happened.
Honestly. Believe me. I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.