Recalling pain of the day Scotland fell to Japan

Greig Oliver was scrum'half when a Scotland XV suffered a 28'24 defeat by Japan in Tokyo. Picture: SNS
Greig Oliver was scrum'half when a Scotland XV suffered a 28'24 defeat by Japan in Tokyo. Picture: SNS
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POSITIVE thoughts everyone. Here’s hoping Scotland get their World Cup campaign off to a winning start against Japan this afternoon but, if Eddie Jones’ side do follow up their seismic win over South Africa with another victory in Gloucester, they won’t be the first Brave Blossoms side to humble the men in dark blue.

Scotland have won all four full Test matches against Japan, including a 100-8 hammering in Perth 11 years ago, but they did lose an international match in Tokyo 28-24 in 1989. For the Scots it may have been an uncapped game, but the pain of the defeat still lingers 26 years on for those involved that hot and humid Sunday at a packed Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.

Scotland may be odds-on favourites to emerge victorious at Kingsholm Stadium, but, technically, they are the lower ranked side – 12th in the world to Japan’s 11th. Back in 1989, however, there was no doubting who the underdogs were and, even a Scotland team shorn of a tartan British and Irish Lions contingent far bigger than has been the case on recent tours, were expected to win comfortably.

Big victories in the four lead-up games, including a 91-8 rout of the Kanto region and 51-25 cruise against Japan under-23s, meant the Scots went into the match, which the hosts were treating as a capped Test, full of confidence, verging on over-confidence.

“There was maybe a bit of complacency,” recalled Greig Oliver, who was scrum-half that day. “But some of us older guys maybe had an inkling of what was coming and suspected that all their top players were being kept waiting in the long grass. And that’s how it turned out, we were ambushed.”

Fin Calder, David Sole, John Jeffrey, Derek Whyte, Gary Armstrong, Craig Chalmers, Peter Dods and the Hastings brothers, Gavin and Scott, were all in Australia with the Lions, but the Scotland XV which took the field in Tokyo was still pretty strong, including the likes of Oliver, Iwan Tukalo, Sean Lineen, Damian Cronin and Iain Paxton.

Oliver said: “We didn’t perform well. They had some quick players, the great [Seiji] Hirao in centre and a couple of big Tongans. It became a bit of a cauldron and they scored a few tries, but we still should have won. They were penalised off the park by the Welsh ref, Les Peard. This was in the days before yellow cards for repeated infringements and the Japanese were happy to keep giving away penalties. Unfortunately, [full-back] Cammy Glasgow, who had been kicking well all tour, had a complete off day with the boot. I took over the goal-kicking, that’s how bad it got. They built up a lead on us but [hooker] Jim Hay got us a try back and I kicked a few and we pegged them back, but they were able to hold on.”

Oliver was highly praised in reports for his performance in the game, but he looks back on it as a low moment. The Hawick scrum-half, who now lives in Limerick and works for the IRFU and Munster as an elite player development coach, spent his international career in the shadow of first Roy Laidlaw and then Gary Armstrong. He received two starting caps, both against Zimbabwe in the World Cups of 1987 and 1991, and also featured off the bench in the second Test against the All Blacks in Auckland on the 1990 tour. “We were certainly expected to win, and even though it was an uncapped match I remember a few jibes coming our way,” recalled Oliver. “It was personally pretty demoralising for myself. In fact, for a few of the guys it was a real chance for us to stake a claim for ourselves and we blew it a bit really. But, overall, I enjoyed the trip, it was a great experience to go to a place like Japan, somewhere a bit different. It was bit of a culture shock for some of the boys, food wise and stuff like that, but you could get by. Alex Brewster [the Stewart’s Melville prop who had received his first cap as a flanker as far back as 1977] was the tour captain and a real father figure. We travelled a fair bit around the country, played some good rugby, and apart from that last game it had been really enjoyable.”

Following Saturday’s heroics in Brighton, the 2019 World Cup hosts now have Scotland firmly in their sights and Oliver said: “Even back then in ’89 you could see glimpses of the potential Japan had. Shiggy Konno was the head of Japanese rugby and he had massive plans. They had good stadiums, there was clearly growing support and more and more input from New Zealand on the coaching side.

“What Japan did on Saturday there was simply incredible and it will be interesting to see if they can sustain that, the intensity and relentless enthusiasm. But I think Scotland are going well, the defence has looked really good during the warm-up games and hopefully our strike runners can do some damage.”

Sunday 28 May, 1989 (Tokyo)

Japan 28 Scotland XV 24

Scorers: Japan: Tries: Hayashi, Kutsuki, Taumoefolau, Yamamoto, Yoshida; Cons: Yamamoto; Pens: Yamamoto 2. Scotland XV: Try: Hay; Con Oliver; Pens: Oliver 5.

Scotland XV: Cameron Glasgow; Matt Duncan, Ruari Maclean, Sean Lineen, Iwan Tukalo; Douglas Wyllie, Greig Oliver; Alex Brewster (c), Jim Hay, Grant Wilson, Chris Gray, Damian Cronin, Derek Turnbull, Graham Marshall, Iain Paxton. Subs: Brian Edwards, Murray Walker, Stewart Jardine, George Buchanan-Smith, Peter Wright, Ian Corcoran

Ref: L Peard (Wales).Att: 25,000