Japan bear little resemblance to Tonga but, like the Pacific Islanders, they arrive in Scotland as the underdogs for an autumn Test match. Of all the matches that tend to worry Scots the most, it is ones like these. Wins over South Africa and Australia stand out as terrific highlights in recent autumn series, not least because they were unexpected, but etched in the memory recesses are home defeats to Argentina and Tonga and the last-gasp win over Samoa.
Nick de Luca is back in the Scotland line-up for the first time since that fateful Pittodrie defeat to the Tongans last November and, while he says he finds it easier to cope with rugby’s rollercoaster ride with the new perspective brought by a first child, the enthusiastic Edinburgh centre admits that he is hoping for something as exhilarating on the field to put to bed the fear of a Test career hitting the buffers.
“Tonga was my last game, and it has felt like a really long time so I’m absolutely delighted to be back in the squad and in the side,” he said. “It wasn’t so much ‘Tonga, what a way to end the year’, it was more ‘is this the end [of my career]?’ I have never missed a squad since my debut [in 2008] until this year. The Six Nations was understandable because I was injured but, when I was told that in the summer I wasn’t going [on South Africa tour], that was a big blow, the first time I’d been left out when fit. I’d had two games back [after injury] so I was hopeful and happy with how I’d played, but I understood what was going on and I would have done the same if I was coach.
“It was about getting Eck [Alex Dunbar] and Matt [Scott] some game time and seeing what they could do, and they were excellent. You definitely don’t want to be in that position [left out] but I was lucky enough to have a great pre-season, get the head down, stuck in and control the controllables. It’s worked. I feel now I’m playing my best rugby again and I’ve got back in.”
De Luca was, therefore, on the outer when Scott Johnson took over the reins from the departed Andy Robinson and he spoke of how players would return to Edinburgh talking about a more relaxed national camp. He also feels that the players who improved the Six Nations finish and toured South Africa put to bed the demoralising end of 2012, with their uplifting display against the Springboks but, clearly, he wants to be part of that.
To win a place back, the 29-year-old admits he is thankful for the passage of time and the maturity that has come with it. “The key thing for me is sticking in systems,” he explained. “I’ve learned that the hard way, particularly defensively. I think of myself as an instinct player and it’s sometimes tough to keep those [instincts] in chains. But you learn.
“Out there,” he said, pointing to the Murrayfield pitch, “I need to go back to what my strengths were. When Tim [Visser] came here we worked well and I developed my passing game. Greig Laidlaw helped me there too, but it was ‘do what you’re good at’. So my running game is back, my defence is better than ever and I do feel that having a kid puts perspective on things.
“I don’t give any less to my rugby but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I’ll give my all and do my best, and put everything I can into it, but also relax. I spent too much time worrying in the past. It’s difficult not to. But now I don’t let it bog me down and I’m enjoying it so much more.”
That has been evident in his play for Edinburgh this season. De Luca remains one of Scotland’s most dangerous attacking players and that has bubbled up again in recent months, but the key improvement he is striving to make after 38 Test matches is the tightening up of his defensive play and getting more decisions right.
Consistency, therefore, is the mantra going into what will only be his fourth autumn Test series and a greater confidence of achieving it stems largely, from the arrival in his life of 19-month-old Ailish.
Japan may be the perfect test then, with the rapidly improving nation’s ability to compete and exploit errors.
“People might moan when we say we can’t underestimate Japan,” De Luca added, “but we can’t. We’re not a superpower. We played [a friendly against Japan] here a couple of years ago and only won by ten points, and they’re a lot better than they were then.
“They beat Wales and they’re coming for a scalp and, if we don’t play our best rugby, they’ll get that scalp. It will be about building an innings and building a score. New Zealand didn’t break Japan down until after the first 20 minutes.
“The rugby public don’t know about Japan and they’re probably expecting this to be a walkover but they’ve got some fantastic individual players, a really good coach and, if we’re not switched on for this game, we’ll get beaten.”
A Scotland team with a switched-on, maturing De Luca should be one worth watching.
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