Sevens Tour Diary: Japan

Hong Kong has been followed by a less eventful week preparing for the inaugural Tokyo Sevens. Consequently this blog should be a little shorter, so perhaps you can make it to the end. Good luck!

Razors at the Ready

Immigration wasn’t exactly swift on our arrival at Narita International Airport; however we did make it through, unlike the Welsh who we left remonstrating with the immigration officials about their reason for entering Japan!

As you leave the airport it does not take long until the Tokyo skyline dominates the horizon. Almost as this happens the speed of our bus dropped to that of Mark Cairns running down the wing and we remained at crawling pace until we arrived at our hotel in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. The sun was setting as we arrived so we completed our pool recovery session, tucked in to dinner and headed for bed.

A new day, the start of a new training week and our first opportunity to build towards the weekend. It started with a frank and honest look at last week’s games. It was certainly helpful for us to have a video analyst with us for this session. Ciaran Beattie put in a decent shift to “tag” all our games so we can look exclusively at certain areas of the game. There were some quality passages of play, but too often we relinquished possession too cheaply. We could also spend time focusing only on our individual performances and compare them to the individual “goal sheets” we had completed in the run up to the tournament.

A busy morning at the computers was followed by a reasonable lunch: nothing outstanding but a solid start from a hotel hosting a tournament for the first time. Then we were on the bus and off to training. As in any large city it takes about an hour to get anywhere. We tried to use this time constructively by taking the laptops on the bus and looking at our opponents for the weekend ahead. South Africa, Samoa and Portugal are all tough opponents so any advantage we can pick up from looking at their previous games will be useful. Training though was all about us and returning to the standards we expect from ourselves as a squad. Although not a perfect session – the main problem being Byron going down with a bad calf – it was definitely a step in the right direction.

In keeping with last week’s blog, I will now detail our pool session. Well, not so much the actual session, as this was completed without any real incidents of note. What happened next was rather more interesting. A few of the boys decided to relax in the spa. Their experience proved to be anything but relaxing. Unfamiliar with the traditions of a Japanese Spa, the boys expected a wee jacuzzi, maybe a steam room and a sauna. They certainly expected bathing suits to be required. They were wrong. On entry they were rather surprised to note several, mainly middle-aged, men wandering around naked. To make matters worse some of them were endeavouring to shave areas not commonly shaved. Well certainly not in public places anyway.

Sea Urchin, a Metro and the Arcade Hall

After our morning weights session, some physio and video analysis, on Wednesday we had a little time to experience some of Tokyo. We decided to head for Ginza, “an elegant and stylish town where a retro-modern atmosphere still lingers in the air” according to our handy guide to Tokyo. It was later afternoon by now and a few of us were a little peckish. Whilst some of the boys took the safe option of an Italian, Cairnsy, Turny [Andrew Turnbull], Ross Miller and myself fancied some sushi. Well Turny didn’t as he hates it. But he was keen on some noodles. After aimless wandering for a while we took a gamble and headed in to a restaurant. Our arrival was greeted by a loud cheer by the 10 chefs who occupied almost half the restaurant. Menus were delivered to us and it quickly became apparent that it was sushi only. Cairnsy took the inspired decision to order a set meal for one for us to share. Turny took the piece of salmon as he saw this as a safe option. The last piece fell to Cairnsy. The Sea Urchin is not something I imagine he will rush back to order. His expert opinion on it: “I could quite easily have been sick eating that.” Shortly after this, Cairnsy’s fortunes changed: he lost the credit card roulette to see who paid for the sushi but his card was not accepted in the restaurant, leaving me to foot the bill. Every cloud…

After stopping for a coffee to cleanse the palate, the four of us decided it was time to head back to the hotel. All we had to do was hop on the Red Metro line for 7 or 8 stops. The problem was buying the ticket, as the ticket vending machine didn’t accept our cards. No problem: we’ll pop out to a bank and get some money.

For your information, the vast majority of Japanese ATM’s also don’t accept cards issued outwith Japan.

Fortunately taxis do, but probably not Cairnsy’s card. As we returned to our rooms, the others also returned. They had had no such difficulty. Sam [Hidalgo-Clyne] had the foresight to collect some yen at the airport. The experience of youth…. They then took great delight in regaling their metro experience. It is normally a silent place. However Robbo [Mark Robertson] decided to lead the boys in a couple of verses of Bonnie Tyler to liven the mood. I have no idea how the Japanese public took to this impromptu concert, but I could hazard a guess.

We were up bright and breezy on Thursday, as we had an early training time. Training was undertaken at the Toshiba factory, home of the Toshiba Brave Lupus team, in the suburb called Toshiba. It was another good quality surface and the general feeling was that training had gone well. Although Hamish [Watson] was disappointed to miss a couple of drop goals, especially when Ross stepped up a nonchalantly “shinned” a couple over. Back to the hotel and another pool session. Of more concern was the excitement a few met this with as it was an opportunity to return to the spa. I will not name and shame these individuals.

After lunch, physio and some hard-earned rest some of the squad headed out to see a little more of Japan. First stop was Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Disappointingly we arrived bang on the dot of 4:30 and the gardens stop letting visitors in at 4:30. Despite the best efforts of Toshi, our liaison officer, the guards were not for budging. Our next stop was a games centre. Japan is synonymous with computer games and so we were expecting high-tech, interactive and futuristic games. What reality presented was a glorified arcade where Street Fighter II was the game of choice. The complexity of this game prevented Cairnsy and Turny from working out how they could play against one another and so they were left to be defeated by the computer. Although slightly disappointed with our time away from rugby we still saw a little of Tokyo and experienced some Japanese culture. Or so we told those that decided to stay at the hotel.

Before we knew it we were almost back to tournament time. A morning of analysis and rest and another session out at Toshiba and then it was time for our jersey presentation. These are always special occasions. This was no exception and we left the meeting ready for the weekend ahead.

Wind, Rain and Disappointment

Saturday morning and we departed for the stadium in high spirits. On arrival we were greeted by a gale-force wind. This provided different conditions to those we normally play in. As we went out for our ‘blow-out’ we realised how influential the wind was going to be. Blowing predominantly across the pitch, passing in one direction was almost impossible. And restarts were a lottery. But the conditions were the same for both teams.

Our first encounter was with South Africa. They are a very structured team, playing a game based on contact and crashing their big forwards over the gain line. Then they release their dangerous backs. All the games on Day 1 turned out to be really close encounters and this was no different. What separated South Africa from ourselves was their ability to take their opportunities. We had chances but we failed to capitalise on them. South Africa, as with all the top teams, were ruthless.

Our 14-0 loss was no shame and a marked improvement on the previous week. But at some stage we have to start turning these close defeats in to narrow victories. Our next game proved to have a similar outcome. By the time we took to the field to face Samoa the wind had eased but had been replaced with a downpour. Samoa are another of the more physical sides on the circuit. And in greasy conditions their size could cause us some problems. Yet we tackled anything that moved and grabbed a lead through a breakaway try through Robbo. We couldn’t hold out until half-time so went in all square, 7-7. With a minute or so left Samoa eventually wore us down and crossed for a converted try. We had one last chance but couldn’t take advantage of it, and another opportunity had slipped through our grasp.

With a little over 90 minutes until we were back on the field there was no time to mope. Maybe the turnaround was too tight for us. Whatever the reason we didn’t perform to the level we expect from ourselves. Portugal are a good team and if you give them ball they will keep it for extended periods of time. This becomes exhausting and we struggled to energise ourselves when we had possession. After our first two performances we were all gutted by the manner of our third defeat.

Our loss meant we were up against France in the first game of Day 2. Another gutsy performance. Another last play defeat, 22-19. Russia in the semi-final of the shield. Surely this was our opportunity to rack up our first win in Japan. It was. Just. 19-14 down with 1:30 on the clock and Fleming scores his second under the posts. Russia have one last attack but it fizzles out with a knock on. Ten seconds on the clock. Our scrum capitulates and Russia have a dog’s life. But they can’t take advantage and we force them into another knock on. This time it is game over. On to the shield final where we face one of this season’s bogey teams: Kenya.

Having lost Turny and Byron after the South Africa game, Robbo is now unavailable with a multitude of injuries. The 9 of us had defeated Russia, but Kenya were a different proposition. We tore out of the blocks. 19-0 at half-time after tries from Fedo, Rossco and Cairnsy. We were in total control of the game and although Kenya scored a couple of tries, Flem added another for us. A good way to finish a challenging couple of weeks with a bit of silverware.

There is plenty for us to build on as we prepare for the inaugural Glasgow Sevens back home.

What an event that promises to be.

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Colin Gregor plays for Glasgow Warriors and has also represented Scotland A. He is currently contracted to the Scotland Sevens team on the IRB Sevens Circuit.