Clark Laidlaw: A Fine Balancing Act

Last Word On Rugby took time during the New Zealand National Sevens tournament, to speak with new incoming All Black Sevens coach Clark Laidlaw: a man with a fine balancing act to perform.

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On a two week visit to New Zealand, incoming New Zealand Sevens coach Clark Laidlaw is the epitome of ‘a man between two roles.’ He is the current assistant coach of London Irish, a popular team in the British and Irish Cup competition. His term is due to end there midyear, so for Clark Laidlaw, it is a fine balancing act.

He is eager to complete his tenure with London Irish with success. But you can see from his responses to questions, that Laidlaw is very keen to begin his upcoming role with the All Black Sevens. Not due to begin until June, this would mean the ability to blend one with the other, will be his biggest test so far.

The former Scotland rugby sevens player, Laidlaw is a man who is detail driven. Known for his aptitude and ability to work with others, a visit to New Zealand (NZ) combined many benefits. Making contact with his interim coaching team, to monitor progress of the NZ Sevens team was key. The other; the fine, summer weather–back in London, in the midst of winter, this was a respite from the cold–and a pleasant break in the New Year.

Clark Laidlaw: A Fine Balancing Act

Last Word On Rugby senior editor Scott Hornell met with Laidlaw while attending the Bayleys 2017 National Sevens tournament. A provincial championship for the best men’s and women’s teams, it was a long way from Madejski Stadium, where he has spent the last 20 months.

Our initial questions were related to his current role with London Irish. Gladly, the team had just come off a 14-41 away victory over Connacht Eagles, in the British and Irish Cup competition. When reminded of this, Laidlaw remarked “I woke to hear the news, so it’s a great result for the team and Nick [Kennedy].”

Away from his base, he was fully aware of the teams progress over the season. Unbeaten in both the Cup and Greene King IPA Championship; “18 games, and playing extremely well in the promotion/relegation competition,” Laidlaw said. He saw similarities here between XV’s and what is required in a sevens team.

“We’re probably guaranteed a home semi-final. So, play-off rugby, we’ve gotta make sure we peak at the right time.”

His transition from one form of the the game to the other should be more seamless, because of his prior playing experience and high level of planning. The delayed beginning to his role surprised some, but it made sense. Signed until the end of the 2016/17 season, he is committed to one–while anticipating the other [NZ Sevens]. A fine balancing act you might say.

This trip to NZ might have taken him from his current role, but Laidlaw is keen to return and see through with his club. “You’ve got to do the business when it really matters. I’ve got a big job at home, but I’ve enjoyed my couple of weeks here.” We get the feel he is a man who wants to help ‘finish his task’ back in London.

during the Aviva Premiership match between London Irish and Gloucester Rugby at the Madejski Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Reading, (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

London Irish v Ospreys – January 21

In fact, he will be back for the final fixture of the regular British and Irish Cup season; London Irish v Ospreys Select XV. After that, they await more first-grade Greene King IPA Championship matches leading up to April. By all accounts, it will take up the majority of Laidlaw’s time–so it will be ‘a fine balance’ between his London Irish responsibilities, while wanting to stay fully abreast with the NZ Sevens.

When asked how much contact he has kept with NZ Rugby, Laidlaw said he had been in contact with interim co-coaches Scott Waldrom and Tomasi Cama continually. They would use technology here; Skype, Facetime and the What’s App to achieve good communication going through to June. By the time that rolls around, Laidlaw will need to switch back to the game he was involved in as a player and coach.

“Getting a feel for the sevens game, get my head around how the teams been going, the players and so on. So once I get back [here in June] it’s about how we want to run the tea–won’t be the same as XV’s”. And the adjusting back to sevens rugby too; “get your head back into sevens, and a lot of the principals off the field”.

Four Day Camp for All Black Sevens

Directly after this last weekends National Sevens, Laidlaw will be present during the all important sevens camp, prior to the Wellington round of the HSBC Sevens Series. “We’ve got a four day camp starting tomorrow [Monday] and we’re looking at bring in 23-24 players. We’ve got 13 contracted sevens players, and we can contract up to 20 so we’re working through that. Excited about taking a group into camp and working with them.”

A full squad announcement is due out by the end of January, so the men that are going to play at Westpac Stadium, will be the group that see’s out the full season (barring injury). So Laidlaw’s task of being in NZ was beneficial. “It’s trying to work out where the players workout trying to fit into the way we’re trying to play the game”.

While the team had not found success in the opening rounds of the series, Laidlaw is not the type to ride in, all guns blazing. He would be best to allow the coaching pair to carry out the team direction–be an adviser behind the scenes primarily. And observe, so he has found that to be a satisfying part of the trip.

“We’ve been delighted with the standards. I thought the quarter final, and semi were of a pretty high standard”.

Great Gelling Experience for Laidlaw to Work with Group Here

“We’ve got some clear messages for the team, over the next few days. I’ll work together with Scott and Tomasi on who we want to train, but the what we want to train will be more over to them,” as he believes they’ll run their team over this season. The Sevens Series will wrap up in May, just before Laidlaw is free to begin his full role. A fine balancing act, Laidlaw is smart enough to have two men who can deliver the message he wants, but run the day-to-day themselves naturally.

NZ Rugby have many resources for Laidlaw to utilize. This includes working with Women’s head coach Allan Bunting. Already knowing Allan, Laidlaw says “he’s got a lot of knowledge, he’s been to the Olympics [assistant to Sir Gordon Tietjens] and a very good sevens coach, so we’re excited about working together.”

Asked if they will hold any dual men’s and women’s camps, Laidlaw remarked that some of the tournaments are aligned. Both men’s and women’s teams play in Sydney and then at the Las Vegas Sevens, so he would expect cross-team benefits of working together.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – DECEMBER 10: Rocky Khan of New Zealand during day 1 of the HSBC Cape Town Sevens Pool C, New Zealand v Argentina match (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

New Zealand a Hub for Sevens Talent

Over the course of the weekend, Laidlaw will have met with players and provincial coaches, to identify talent. Not a man who likes to ‘drop names’ but he was impressed with Isaac Te Tamaki, Sevu Reece and the Waikato group. He also mentioned Tasman and eventual winners Counties-Manukau, so across the country there is talent abound. So much so, that Sir Gordon was also present in Rotorua, to identify Samoan players of interest.

His comment about using ‘hubs’ to train at–Tauranga, Palmerston North and Christchurch–would be ideal bases to have integrated programs to bring the men and women together. Rocky Kahn (picture above) is one of those who played well in an Auckland team who did not reach the final, but you would be confident Laidlaw will have discussed all possible player names with the current NZ Sevens management.

In that way, his visit to NZ is to be sure they target the best players for this weeks four day camp, the team for Wellington; and for later on down the track. The goal for the team now, will reside with the current coaching group. And good luck to them.

Laidlaw Familiar with the Challenge Ahead

Laidlaw knows the challenge will be tough. “Going forward, obviously the Commonwealth Games is a huge event for us going forward into 2018, along with the World Cup. So it’s a big year to have 10 World Series tournaments, a Comm Games and a World Cup (RWCSevens) all in the same year.”

Experienced as an ex-player. Laidlaw competed at Manchester in 2002 and Melbourne 2006. Also a veteran of the 2005 Hong Kong World Cup Sevens event. There, his Scotland side faced England in the quarter finals. “We lost to England, but we had beaten them in Wellington a few weeks earlier”. That brought to mind England of 2017; “oh, England are going good. They’ve got a good program running.”

Speaking like this, LWOR sensed Laidlaw has many goals ahead. And his first full calendar year in charge is going to be pivotal for the team, and for NZ Rugby–both men’s and women’s sevens teams.

Key Goals for Laidlaw and NZ Sevens

For now, Laidlaw will finish up with the NZ Sevens camp in Rotorua, before returning to London. He will continue a fine balancing act, as his team plan to do well in their home event: Wellington Sevens, 28-29 January.

Then, in June Laidlaw can comfortably take on his full head coach role, and go forward from there. He seems prepared for the task, as he balances the demands from both posts. LWOR wish him all the best, and know if he can retain that fine balance, when he is 100% on-task, he should be very well.

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