Japan trip ‘will give Scotland advantage at 2019 World Cup’

Assistant coach Matt Taylor says Scotland's tour of Japan will give the team an edge in 2019. Picture: SNS
Assistant coach Matt Taylor says Scotland's tour of Japan will give the team an edge in 2019. Picture: SNS
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Have Scotland stolen a march on their 2019 Rugby World Cup rivals by making sure they are one of the few European powers to have sampled the radically different culture of Japan for themselves?

Certainly, the coaches feel that could be the case, and though the trip may be less glamorous than Australia or New Zealand in rugby terms, they are convinced it is going to give them just as much reward.

“It is a positive that we have come here and understand the environment,” said Matt Taylor, the assistant coach as the team settled into their hotel only a couple of miles from Tokyo city centre. “It will be an advantage compared to people who have never been here before.

“You can understand things and how they operate. You gain comfort from being in a place or an environment that you have already been in. Whenever you come and you have not, there are certain unknowns that you are not sure of. It will be good.

“It could be a positive thing. We went out to dinner and it was those little table barbecues and the guys really enjoyed it, saying to each other ‘this is awesome’.

“It is not the same as every year going to France and getting used to it; it is different and nice.”

While it has been different for most of the squad, a few, including Richie Gray who was due to join the rest of the party last night after Castres were eliminated from the Top14 play-offs, have sampled rugby in Japan as part of the Under 20s squad that took part in the 2009 Junior World Cup.

Coincidentally, it was also the first time that many of them will have met Taylor, who had ended his playing career with the Borders and was just starting his coaching career. “It was quite funny,” he recalled. “I was with Australia and came in to Tokyo. The Scottish Under 20s were coming out of the hotel as we were checking in, with Richie Gray and a few guys I recognise.

“It is a great place, Japan, very different culturally to a lot of other places we go in a rugby sense. It is the first time here for a lot of the guys so it has been an exciting few days.”

Things are a lot more familiar when it comes to the playing side of things. It is only nine months or so since they were studying Japan in enormous depth ahead of their World Cup clash, and having seen the opposition in action at the weekend hanging on to beat Canada, Taylor reckons a change of coach and a few different personnel has made only a marginal difference.

“It was similar to how [Japanese Super Rugby team] the Sunwolves have been playing, they are quick to contact, they try to play a high tempo game,” he noted. “There are a few similarities to how Japan played in the World Cup in some of their shapes and that they are trying to keep the ball in hand.

“They are kicking a wee bit more than they have in the past, so whether they keep that up we are not sure. In the World Cup they only kicked it five times against us but now they are averaging nine or ten a game, a bit more than they have in the past.

“They are very good with the ball in hand so the more we keep the ball in hand and make them defend, the better it will be for us. They seem to be comfortable when they have the ball so it will be about us doing well when we have the ball and can exploit them in that way.”

Though Scotland won that World Cup game by a comfortable margin in the end, they do not need reminding how close it was until their opponents, who had played South Africa only four days earlier, ran out of steam.

There was another warning in the Canada game. Though Japan had a man sent off and played most of the final quarter with 14 men, they still came from behind to secure the result and beat off a late Canadian resurgence. All from a team missing many of its key players.

A group based overseas have arrived in Japan for the series against Scotland but were not asked to travel again for the weekend game, so the likes of Amanaki Mafi, the back row who caused Scotland endless problems in the World Cup clash, Hendrick Tui and Male Su’a, are likely to strengthen the team that faces Scotland.

“Japan are only one ranking place below us,” Taylor pointed out. “They are a very good side. We want to play well and put a marker down.”