Scotland boarded the long-haul jet for Japan yesterday and probably offered up a small prayer of thanks that they have a two-Test series against Japan rather than a three-Test series against one of the big three from south of the equator.
Not that these two Tests are a gimmie. Scotland are ranked exactly one position higher than their hosts and a good many of us who witnessed the teams’ World Cup meeting in Gloucester are interested to find out what will happen when Scotland play Japan on a level playing field. With just a four-day turnaround after beating the mighty Boks Japan were within two points of the Scots early in the second half of that World Cup game when number eight Amanaki Mafi, the most influential player on either team, was stretchered off the field and the belief seemed to drain from the fast tiring Brave Blossoms.
Both teams are missing key personnel for this short series. For Japan full-back Ayumu Goromaru and the inspirational skipper Michael Leitch are injured, while the Scots are without their conductor in attack Finn Russell and their defensive coordinator Alex Dunbar. At least Vern Cotter can call up two very decent replacements in Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Taylor, who missed the World Cup through injury but nevertheless enjoyed a breakthrough season.
Taylor scored two tries in the Six Nations and he boasts two winners medals, the Aviva Premiership and the Champions Cup, both of which he helped Saracens to lift. The fact that he had a three-month “rest” at the start of the season may mean that he is a little fresher than most at the fag end of it.
Taylor is now a central figure in Scotland head coach Vern Cotter’s starting XV, equally comfortable at inside or outside centre, a defensive linchpin and a constant threat in attack, so what has changed for the player who won nine of his first 13 caps off the bench and only established himself in the side three years after making his international bow?
“I suppose its confidence really,” Taylor says. “I’ve got a lot more confidence in myself and in my game. I have just thoroughly enjoyed the season, I’ve enjoyed playing week in and week out. Yeah, the main thing is the confidence.
“I think when you first come into the set-up – well, I speak from my own experience – I certainly wasn’t sure whether I was capable of playing there or not. I think you just get more experienced the more games you play and the more experience you get the more comfortable you feel in those situations.
“I am certainly at the stage now when I feel – not necessarily comfortable – but I enjoy going out there and I enjoy playing with these guys and my confidence has definitely improved.”
Taylor’s ability to play in either centre channel could come in handy, especially in the absence of Dunbar. Cotter could start the Saracens centre outside Peter Horne or, if his foot injury recovers in time, the new Stormers recruit Huw Jones should win his first cap, if only off the bench, and he prefers the 13 shirt.
The 2015 Rugby World Cup may only have finished a few months ago but in some respects Scotland are using this tour as a dry run for the next edition in Japan in 2019. The Scots can get a feel for the conditions, on and off the field, so they know what to expect in three years’ time when the bulk of this young squad will be playing.
Few of the players know exactly what to expect from the country but most will have an idea of what to expect from the Brave Blossoms, even if they are under new management. Taylor is the exception. He watched that World Cup match on television – “I can’t remember where” – and he insists that Scotland have not yet got into the detail of identifying individual threats in the Blossoms’ line-up. But with Japan playing Canada this weekend, the Scots will at least have some video evidence to sift through before next Saturday’s opener.
“They are a few months down the line from the World Cup,” he says of the opposition. “They have obviously learned stuff as a squad together. They will have had a game coming into this. I think they will be a force to be reckoned with on home soil, they will be a massive test.
“I think they are ranked tenth in the world at the moment and we are ranked ninth so we have to be on point and we have to be on the money if we are going to win both those Tests.
“We haven’t focused on anyone so far, we’ve just run a few of the Japanese moves, and are getting used to their style of play.
“The boys understand how important it is to prepare well. We don’t get much time together so the sessions we have are even more important than the ones in club rugby. Everyone understands that and there’s been a real focus on making sure that we go out every day and that we improve on the training pitch so that we can bring the performances at the weekend.”
While the Scots may start as favourites they lost a (non Test) match the last time they ventured to Japan in 1989 and the home side has the added advantage of the core of the team being hot-housed in Super Rugby with the Sunwolves.
The new franchise hasn’t exactly reinvented the game but with two exceptions – the Brumbies and the Cheetahs both kyboshed them – the Wolves have been reasonably competitive as they acclimatise to Super Rugby, beating the Jaguares and earning a draw with the Stormers, who needed a last-minute score to save their blushes. Incidentally Scotland’s new recruit Jones came off the bench that day so he knows what to expect.
There is also the small matter of World Cup ranking points. The cut-off was shifted from the middle of 2016 to the middle of 2017 to make them more relevant and, sitting in ninth, the Scots need to jump one place to avoid facing two big guns rather than one in their 2019 world cup pool... not that anyone has admitted as much.
“The rankings, and their possible importance down the line, has never been mentioned,” says Taylor. “It’s just a case of how close we have been as nations, we’re currently tenth and ninth, so we make sure that everyone understands the need to take Japan very seriously. They’ve been a strong side for a couple of years and they are going to be two very tough Tests.”