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Interview

Former Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw set for Japan rugby debut

"I want to test myself to be the best player I can be," says two-time World Cup veteran

Greig Laidlaw, former captain of Scotland's national rugby team, is ready to take on a new challenge in Japan. (Photo courtesy of NTT Communications) ©︎ShiningArcs

TOKYO -- After more than a decade playing rugby at the highest level, Greig Laidlaw could be forgiven for thinking about taking it easy as he enters what he acknowledged is likely the "latter stages" of his career.

Instead, the 35-year-old former Scotland captain is embracing one more challenge in Japan.

Laidlaw will make his debut in Top League, the country's highest level rugby, on Saturday with the NTT Communications Shining Arcs. The move follows three years in France, where he competed in the Top 14 league.

"It was probably an easier decision if I'd wanted to stay in France, and probably more comfortable," Laidlaw told Nikkei Asia. "But I'm trying to push the boundaries and have a great life experience here as well."

Laidlaw, who retired from international rugby shortly after the 2019 World Cup, said he is excited about playing a different, faster style of rugby.

"It's different to what I'm used to, coming from a sort of European style of rugby, where they're a little more physical," he said. "It's a great challenge here. In terms of the way they want to play the game here, especially NTT Communications Shining Arcs, they want to play as fast a brand of rugby as we can ... It's exciting for me to play in a different style."

Turning in a solid performance on the field, however, is just one priority for the 35-year-old.

"It's different to what I'm used to, coming from a sort of European style of rugby, where they're a little more physical," Greig Laidlaw told Nikkei Asia ahead of his Top League debut.

"First and foremost for me, it's about being a good rugby player and performing in games, but I think there's another side to it of me coming here as well, to help develop the players," Laidlaw said. "I spoke at length with NTT before I signed, and they very much wanted that side of my experience, to help the younger players and to help the club, and I'm really passionate about doing that."

Laidlaw said he has enjoyed settling in with his new club, speaking "a bit of broken Japanese" with his teammates and generally finding his feet in a new environment. And while adapting to a new culture, club and style of play all at once would be a challenge at any time, the coronavirus pandemic has added another layer of difficulty.

The pandemic has turned the world of global sports upside down, from spectator-less soccer matches last year to player quarantines at the ongoing Australian Open tennis tournament.

Laidlaw himself experienced that disruption first hand when the Top 14 schedule was cut short last year. "I was really disappointed," he said. "It was tough to take at the time because the season before we had made the Top 14 final, and I was really motivated to try and win that before I left France."

It was a similar story in Japan last spring, when the Top League season was suspended in February and later canceled with 42 games left unplayed. Now, the third wave of COVID infections over the winter has pushed back the start of this season from Jan. 16 to Feb. 20, and the number of fans at matches will be capped at 50% of capacity to reduce the risk of the infection spreading.

Facing another season disrupted by COVID, Laidlaw was philosophical about the setback.

"As players, you have to just try and be mentally and physically ready when the time comes to play. Probably the week after the season was announced to be delayed -- that was a bit of a tough week, because everyone was getting ready and excited. ... Everybody involved in the game was disappointed with the delay, but safety comes first."

Now, with the start of the season once again in sight, "we're starting to get excited again," he said.

But the delayed schedule is just one downside of the virus. The lack of contact with fans is another.

Greig Laidlaw of Scotland battles Japan at the Rugby World Cup at International Stadium Yokohama in October 2019.   © Getty Images

"It's been a little bit frustrating in terms of lack of interaction here with NTT fans. But fortunately for myself, NTT Communications has been really good. They've done a few things online to try to stay connected with the supporters," Laidlaw said. "I think it's really important in uncertain times, or strange times, that players in our position are seen as role models as well ... to show the right thing and stay connected to the fans."

As for connecting with fans digitally, "I'm certainly in the right team for that," Laidlaw said. NTT Communications one of Japan's biggest telecommunications companies, with operations around the globe.

Since his appearance in the 2015 World Cup -- the same event where Japan's Brave Blossoms famously upset South Africa, instantly boosting the sport's popularity in the country -- Laidlaw has been a favorite among Japanese fans of the sport. Asked how the extra attention is affecting him ahead of his debut with the Shining Arc, Laidlaw said his long career has prepared him for what lies ahead.

"There's always pressure, that's something I've learned to deal with over my career, whether I've been captaining teams or playing in leagues that are very competitive. You've got to see it as a privilege that you're in [that] position, because it means a lot to people, and that certainly means more to me than most."

Acknowledging he is in the "latter stages" his career, Laidlaw said his goals remain the same. "As a professional rugby player, I want to play really good rugby, I want to test myself ... to be the best player I can be. I am in a unique environment. From my experience, that’s the best place to do it -- because you have to prove yourself.”

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