Given that Greig Laidlaw was only four at the time, it was possibly a bit unfair of a Japanese journalist at yesterday’s press conference to remind him that the last time a Scotland team played in Japan, they lost.
Certainly it seemed to leave the Scotland captain, normally such polished performer at these events, a bit nonplussed for a second or two, wondering if it had so long ago that his uncle Roy Laidlaw might still have been in Scotland colours – he wasn’t, it was Greig Oliver who was at scrum-half. All the same, the point was well made. Japan on their own patch are no pushovers.
Needless to say, the non-cap match from 27 years ago is not at the centre of Laidlaw’s current attention, but he did appreciate the point. “We understand it is going to be a tough game in front of the Japanese supporters who are starting to understand the game of rugby and get into it a bit more,” he said.
“Having said that, each time, as Scotsmen, we wear the jersey we are a very proud nation and want to win. The players selected and given that privilege will be very keen to win again.”
It is all part of the upward curve of Japanese rugby. In 1977 a non-cap Scotland side stuck 74 points on Japan. A dozen years later they returned with a weakened team, thanks to a healthy representation in the British & Irish Lions squad that was touring Australia at the same time, and lost.
Two years after that Scotland played the first official Test against Japan when they were drawn against each other in the World Cup and though the scorelines have often looked straightforward, Laidlaw and all his colleagues know the recent games have been anything but comfortable for those on the field. The last match was a case in point. Last year’s World Cup game in Gloucester was played only four days after the Brave Blossoms had recorded their famous victory over South Africa and though Scotland won comfotably in the end, it was desperately tight until Japan ran out of steam.
“We started a little slow but played very well at the end and won 45-10,” Laidlaw recalled. “We are very happy to have scored that number of points in a Test and also keep Japan to 10 points. Our defence will be very important again when we come up against them on Saturday night.
“We have had a good look at the Sunwolves [Japan’s Super Rugby franchise] and the last few games the Japanese have put together. They like to throw the ball around and they like to play an expansive game. That lends itself to the Super Rugby competition so we are expecting that type of play against us. I am sure they will try to keep the ball alive and play a fast game.”
Japan warmed up for this weekend’s match with a 26-22 win over Canada in Vancouver last Saturday, although they played most of the second half with 14 men following the dismissal of Yoshiya Hosoda. Laidlaw expects a few new faces when they meet the Scots.
“In terms of changes to their team I am sure they will want to bring in a few of the boys who did not play against Canada,” he said.
“They picked up a couple of injuries and a red card – I am sure the one person who picked up the card will not be eligible to play [he got a two match ban].”
The big blow to Japan from that narrow win in Vancuover has been the loss of Fumiaki Tanaka, a key player at scrum-half, who joins World Cup captain Michael Leitch and their top points scorer Ayumo Goromaru on the injured list after dislocating a shoulder.
“It is brilliant to be here in Japan and experience a different culture while also playing two Test matches against Japan, who are an improving team,” Laidlaw added. “They showed that during the World Cup and also in their recent form. Also it is a good indication for the 2019 World Cup for the Scotland team that will travel over. It is brilliant for the Scotland players who are here for two tough games against Japan.
“We are coming off the back of a long season so it has been important and good for us not to play but to train well. We feel we are in a good place. We understand it is going be a tough game but we back ourselves and are confident in our skillset.”
Certainly he has no intention of bringing back even more memories of 1989. One dose was clearly enough.