Greig Laidlaw on life in Japan and what Scotland need to fix in the Six Nations

Haggis is in short supply but Greig Laidlaw has not given up hope of laying on a Burns supper next year for his new team-mates in Japan.

Greig Laidlaw in action for NTT Communications Shining Arcs during a Top League match against Kubota Spears. Picture: Toru Hanai/Getty Images

The former Scotland captain is settling in with NTT Communications Shining Arcs in the Top League as rugby starts to emerge from the pandemic.

A state of emergency still covers the Tokyo metropolitan area but that may be lifted on Thursday.

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Japan’s Covid numbers are far better than the UK’s but since emergency restrictions were imposed on January 7 people have been urged to avoid leaving home unnecessarily, while restaurants and bars must close by 8pm.

Limited numbers of supporters have been allowed to attend matches, with crowds capped at 5,000.

Laidlaw, who is based in the city of Urayasu in the Chiba prefecture, first got an inkling there was interest in him from Japan during the 2019 Rugby World Cup when the host nation defeated Scotland to reach the quarter-finals.

The scrum-half had caught the imagination of the Japanese rugby public four years earlier at the previous World Cup when Scotland beat the Brave Blossoms 45-10 in Gloucester. By the time the next tournament came along ‘Mr Greig’ had become something of a cult hero, attracting huge interest from fans and media in the host nation.

A move to Japan almost seemed like a natural step and the 35-year-old cannot speak highly enough of the welcome he has received since joining Shining Arcs.

Greig Laidlaw says he feels "very privileged" to play in front of supporters in Japan. Picture: Toru Hanai/Getty Images

“The people have been awesome and I feel very privileged at this moment in time, as all the players in Japan do, that we can play in front of some supporters, albeit that it’s limited numbers,” he said.

“It’s brilliant and the way the Japanese people and culture are, they are really respectful, so I’m certainly enjoying it so far and looking forward to what’s ahead.

“The reality is that when I was moving out here I knew it was going to be a little bit different, a different culture obviously and pretty difficult language.

“But here at NTT Comms we’ve got excellent facilities, brilliant translators, people to help you off the field first and foremost, before you start worrying about the rugby. That’s made things a lot easier to settle in.

Greig Laidlaw had offers to remain in France but opted to move to Japan to join NTT Communications Shining Arcs. Picture: Toru Hanai/Getty Images

“The rugby is slightly different as well and it’s something I’m enjoying. We’re trying to play a good brand of rugby here at NTT Communications, keeping the ball in play for long periods of time.”

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Laidlaw took the decision after the last World Cup to call time on his international career after 76 caps and a record 39 as Scotland captain. He was playing for Clermont Auvergne and when the time came to make a decision on his next club he could have remained in France, with Perpignan keen to sign him. But Laidlaw decided to grasp the chance to do something different.

“Opportunities come along and rugby is a short career,” he explained. “I thought long and hard about Perpignan and I really liked what they had to say but I just felt that because it is a short career that if I didn’t take this opportunity now to come to Japan I would probably never get it again.”

The league is to be revamped and Laidlaw expects an influx of overseas players tempted by Japan’s shorter season. Spectator interest is strong, with Shining Arcs selling 35,000 to 40,000 tickets for their first game, only for Covid-19 to delay the start of the season.

“I think you’re probably going to see more and more players being tempted, coming to have a look and play out here. It’s something completely different, a completely fresh challenge, and a short season as well. So it gives people opportunities to come and play a bit of rugby in a short period of time, but decent rugby as well in a strong competition.

“It certainly seems to be opening up. There’s a new league starting up next season, so it’s definitely an exciting time for players.”

Laidlaw helped the Shining Arcs draw 26-26 draw with the Mitsubishi DynaBoars on Sunday then watched Scotland being edged out by Ireland in the Six Nations. He says he has no regrets about stepping away from international rugby but remains an ardent Scotland fan and believes they can get back on track for the final two Championship matches, against Italy and France.

“Listen, I don’t think they’re far away. The boys will be frustrated and I’ve talked to a few of them but they just need to look at their performances to realise they really aren’t far away. I think the forward pack is coming together and keeping them in games. It’s up to the boys now to finish well in the last couple of games after starting brilliantly against England.

“At Test match level, you’ve got to fix the simple things first, so Scotland will obviously look at their lineout, that’s probably the first area. And then the discipline. If they could also be a little bit more patient in their defence.

“As much as France are excellent at the moment, and they’re really dangerous, I don’t think they’ll like playing against a team like Scotland. So when that game rolls around - obviously they’ve got to take care of Italy first - they’ve just got to go out there and be themselves, put in a Scottish performance and I think they can put pressure on France.”

While he was able to watch Scotland in the Six Nations, other home comforts are in short supply and Laidlaw has thus far been unable to find any haggis.

“Somebody sent me a message saying there’s a pub that serves it,” he said. “But sadly it’s past Burns Night already so I’ve missed the boat this year, but hopefully I can source something and I’ll maybe try and do a Burns supper for the boys here next season.”

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