Scotland centre Nick De Luca is looking forward to finally facing Japan with the shackles off when the teams launch the viagogo Autumn rugby Test series at Murrayfield.
The 29-year-old is one of four survivors in tomorrow’s starting line-up from when a non-cap Scotland side faced a touring Japanese Select and won unconvincingly 24-5 at Murrayfield in June, 2010.
However, as De Luca recalled, special conditions applied that day.
“We were going off on tour to Argentina and the match was to be treated as a training exercise. As a consequence, we were under orders not to kick the ball at all during the entire first half.
“It was an unfamiliar experience and at one point I found myself in the back field, our own ‘22’ in fact, with three Japanese guys running at me. I just had to stand my ground and take the consequences.
“Luckily, we don’t have any restrictions like the no-kicking rule this time, but it was still a good learning experience which can come in useful now.
“For example, I was very impressed by the physicality shown by the Japanese and the collision and breakdown contest was outstanding.
“I learned that day, too, that every time you pass the ball you are danger of being hit (legally) if you don’t get it right.”
Few exemplify the slings and arrows of top international rugby better than De Luca, who has overcome serious injury and in one instance a suspension for an alleged dangerous tackle for which he still protests his innocence to emerge as a key figure in the Scotland line-up.
That contentious tackle incident occurred earlier this year and may have contributed to the fact he has been off the scene for the past 11 Tests.
However, form this season has been impossible to ignore and just as he had the highest tackle count when Scotland made history by becoming the first Test side to beat Argentina on their notorious home ground of Tucaman province in 2010, so too he has led the way this season with Edinburgh.
“Making comebacks is not something I particularly want to be known for, but I’m happy to be back, especially as I am really enjoying my rugby. I’m pleased, also, to be partnering Matt Scott,” said De Luca.
The pair were stalwarts of Edinburgh’s opening European Cup win over Munster, which no doubt contributed heavily to current selection. “I’ve not played that much with Matt this year because he’s had an injury, but when we have played we have caused sides trouble. We are both physical threats, so defences have to watch us both – that gives each of us lots of space.
“Matt is a go-forward specialist who is always getting over that gain-line, which makes the next phase for myself and the rest of the back-line much easier.
“What is brilliant this year at Edinburgh is we have a good defence coach in Omar Mouneimne.
“It has taken a few weeks to understand what is going on, but now, when somebody comes at you, the hit has to be made as hard as you can manage.
“For the past while we’ve been getting back into another fantastic defence system with Scotland and the benefits will show this weekend.”
This contrast in tackling styles was expressed in layman’s terms this week by former captain Mike Blair, who noting the preponderance of Glasgow players, said: “Mouneimne is a believer in the first tackler going high and locking up the ball, preventing the offload, with the second man chopping the legs.
“Glasgow and Scotland defence coach Matt Taylor is an advocate of the first man tackling low, scything the ball carrier down, and then the second man doing anything he can to win or slow down possession from the ruck, whether it be ‘jackling’ or ‘winning the space’ over the ball.
“The order in which these tasks are completed may seem incidental, but have a huge influence on a team’s defensive structure.”
So, some vital adaptation will be required and, if defensive methods have come a long way, then so too has De Luca, whose Edinburgh skipper Greig Laidlaw has no hesitation labelling him an “unsung hero”.
Said Laidlaw: “Nick is a kind of unsung hero whose defence has been incredible, always leading from front in that aspect.
“It will be the same with Scotland and a case of getting all the small things right so that he has a top game.
“I’m delighted we have Nick and Matt at centre, not least because being in same group as Japan at the 2015 World Cup adds an edge.
“It’s really important for us to lay down a marker, especially at home. We’ll be out to exert authority early on.”
While Japan were in action last week at home to New Zealand, the Scots have not played together since June.
Laidlaw said: “All our players are in good form at club level. It is just about doing the same in a Scotland jersey and bringing it together as a collective.”
On this occasion, Laidlaw has handed over the captaincy to fit-again Kelly Brown, which will leave him free to concentrate on play-making and enhancing his reputation as an outstanding goal-kicker.
In his 21 Tests, Laidlaw has already amassed 193 points, making him his country’s seventh most prolific scorer.
Another 18 points would see him overtake Grand Slam legend and fellow Borderer Peter Dods, but typically, he is content to let that side of things take care of themselves.
As for his half back link alongside Ruaridh Jackson, he said: “Ruaridh is a good guy to play with and hopefully we can control the tempo of the game as well as field position, which is important in international rugby.”
This time last year Laidlaw was lining up in Jackson’s position of stand-off, but his versatility allows Nick De Luca to return compliments.
“Greig is a fantastic talent and what makes him versatile is that he is unflappable,” said De Luca. “He has a great attitude and huge faith in his own ability.
“Even if he were to play at 12 (centre) he could still do a fine job for Scotland.”
Hopefully it will not be necessary for Scotland to shake things up on the hoof, at least not to the extent outlined tongue-in-cheek by De Luca.
However, this Japanese team are liable to pose a serious threat to a home side who feel they can afford the luxury of experimenting in positions such as second row, while Sean Maitland is new to the full back role at Test level and Glasgow winger Tommy Seymour has never played any match at Murrayfield.
Incentives abound not least the chance to make an early impression on Scotland coach-in-waiting Vern Cotter, who has been around in an observer capacity this week, while particular interest will centre on the back row combination.
The last time the trio comprising Al Strokosch, Dave Denton and Kelly Brown started a match together was the ill-fated loss to Tonga in Aberdeen, which proved so costly for then coach Andy Robinson.
However, that defeat had much to do with the narrow confines of the Pittodrie football pitch, and in the wide open spaces of Murrayfield the Scots will surely prevail. Eventually. I predict a 15 point home win.