Josh Strauss has great memories of playing Japan – it was in the World Cup and his debut cap days after qualifying to play for Scotland – and he believes that for the second time inside a year, the Scots can burst a Japanese bubble.
Last time they did it by inflicting the only defeat Japan suffered in the World Cup just a few days after they had beaten South Africa. This time, it is in the face of a historic day in Japanese rugby, with Emperor Akihito and a record crowd both expected at the game.
“My debut was against Japan in the World Cup; it was a great moment,” Strauss recalled. “I was a bit unsure of how I would feel, it being my first game and being born in South Africa, but it was a great moment, a proud feeling, singing the anthem and being out there with the boys, a group of my friends.
“Now it is great for me to have my first tour here in Japan. The squad have loved the experience and I am fascinated by the culture, the amount of respect the Japanese people have and the way they live their lives. It has been a good experience.”
The next step is to try to undermine the historic status of today’s match in Tokyo by making sure the result again goes Scotland’s way, though Strauss is not taking anything for granted. He first saw Japan play in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa and is impressed by how far they have come in the 21 years since.
“I see a lot of friends from South Africa playing over here, it has been great,” he added. “The quality is showing in the international team who did so well in the last World Cup. They are a team to be reckoned with and it will keep growing.
“They are a very good team, they did a lot of very good things and made the game very difficult for us. They did things well at times but we are looking to be better this weekend. We will look at things we did well, look at the things we struggled with and try to get better. It is all about improving. That is a big thing for us in the squad since I have been involved.
“They are a good defensive team and will build on that. Their set piece has improved a lot. With the infrastructure of club rugby and having a Super Rugby team in place the sport will grow, you can see that.
“In the past when you played lower tier countries their structure would be there for 20 minutes. This Japan team has shown they are in the game for 80 minutes. They are fighting for it all the way and that comes from having a good base and that comes from set-piece, structures, defence, things like that.”
For the Japanese players, the excitement is already starting to build. In a country where formality and status is built so strongly into everyday life, the royal seal of approval really does mean something, as does the record support in the stadium where they plan to host the World Cup final in 2019. “Being watched by the Emperor is a very big honour,” said Shota Horie, the captain. “We would really like to be able to produce a result for the Emperor. It is very unusual for him to come to an event like this.”
For Rikiya Matsuda, the student who has come in at full-back for his debut start, it is a double honour, not only running out with the team for the first time but doing it on such a prestigious occasion.
“Being selected for a game where the Emperor is coming is a great honour for me, a great honour,” he said. “I don’t feel there is that much pressure on me though; it is more about extra motivation and the desire to play according to the occasion.”
Despite the trappings around the occasion, there is still a game of rugby to be won and Strauss, who was recalled to give John Hardie a rest in the back row, is determined to make sure his memories of playing Japan are not soured by a loss.
“We always talk about what an honour it is to wear the Thistle,” he said. “It is such a big battle in any position and the back row is a tough one. I want to show I deserve to be there by playing well. That is all I can do.
“I have integrated well. I had a bit of time off but because I had two weeks’ training [after not making the first Test squad]. I did all the contact stuff last week but missed out on the team. I am positive, confident and ready to go.”
Vern Cotter’s men have identified a number of specific improvements they need to make today after last weekend’s 26-13 win in Toyota City. “We need to hold on to the ball for more phases,” said Matt Taylor, the defence coach. “With our group, a number of the guys have not played for between four and six weeks. When you have not played a competitive game like that, some of the passes don’t stick, some of the running lines are not quite right. Hopefully we have been able to improve this week and get right some of those things we did not get right the week before.
“What we want to do as a group is go out there and put in a really good performance and finish the year off strongly. We need to ensure we play at a really high standard, don’t drop our standards and keep improving week by week.”