TEAMS wearing cherry and white while playing at Gloucester’s Kingsholm Stadium can generally be guaranteed the enthusiastic and vociferous backing of the home support – but this inalienable truth of English rugby could be turned on its head in just less than two months’ time when Japan and Scotland meet in the World Cup at the famous old ground.
As huge underdogs, the men from the Pacific Ocean might hope for some sympathetic encouragement from the neutrals in the crowd, and the fact that the “Brave Blossoms” sport almost exactly the same colours as Gloucester wear would ordinarily help to reinforce this artificial sense of allegiance. However, the presence of one of the local club’s favourite sons in the navy blue ranks could be a swing factor.
It would be great to play in the game because I obviously have a lot of connections thereGreig Laidlaw
“Hopefully the Gloucester fans take our side, even though Japan are playing in cherry and white. Hopefully I can sway a few, and some of the guys like Al Strokosch who played at Gloucester before can help as well,” says Greig Laidlaw, who moved to the West Country side from Edinburgh at the start of last season, and quickly established himself as a fans’ favourite.
“Kingsholm itself is a fantastic stadium to play rugby in and it would be great to be involved in the game because I obviously have a lot of connections there,” he added.
Japan have qualified for every World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1987, but they have only managed one win against Zimbabwe in 1991 and one draw against Canada in 2007. They are the only side to have conceded more than 1,000 points (1,159) in the history of the tournament, at an average of 48 points per game.
Laidlaw scored one of Scotland’s six tries when they ran out comfortable 42-17 winners the last time the two sides met, at Murrayfield in 2013.
So, the weight of history leans towards a fairly comfortable Scottish victory. However, Laidlaw says that the squad are not taking anything for granted and have been keeping a keen eye on their opponents’ recent progress in the Pacific Nations Cup.
“This is a good time for us because we can get a look at them and see what they’re up to,” he said. “We have had a good look at Japan, who played Canada [won 20-6] and the USA [lost 23-18], and it is good for us to understand the way they want to play.
“Samoa put in a big shift at home against the All Blacks recently – they are a proud country and proud blokes. And South Africa just had another cracking game against New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, showing a lot of their qualities in a tough Test match.
“So, the pool will be tough, but we believe in ourselves and we know the warm-up games are going to be very important.”
With that in mind, the Scotland squad have been given next week off in order to catch their breath after six gruelling weeks building a strong base in terms of fitness and basic skills, knowing that when they return to camp the focus will shift towards fine-tuning their game-plan during the four warm-up matches they have scheduled.
“You can’t train all the time – we need to get some down time as well. That was built into the plan by the conditioners and coaches: a high workload which then drops off towards the four warm-up games. It’s important for the boys to recover and feel fresh going into those games,” said Laidlaw.
“The training has been intense, and I think it had to be like that coming off the back of a poor Six Nations tournament. The main thing to come out of the camp is that we need to develop our skill sets and I think we’ve done that.
“During the Six Nations we probably played a high-quality offloading game that put teams under a bit of strain for 50 to 60 minutes but I think then we just came up short in the last 20 to 30 minutes, or even the whole second half in a couple of games. Training has been tailored towards fixing that.
“If you have a good first half then sometimes, in certain situations, you fall into the trap of thinking it will just happen again, whereas in the first half we made it happen. Training has definitely been pushed towards big decision making and skills under fatigue.”
Scotland will play Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin at the end of their first week back together. They will then face Italy home and away, followed by France away – with the final 31-man squad for the World Cup being announced at the end of August [just before the France game].
“The game against Ireland – who are the Six Nations champions – will be a good marker to see where we have improved,” said Laidlaw.
“We are certainly training a lot better, consistently better, which has probably been one of the problems in the past. We need to make sure we take that forward and deliver it in the games.”