SCOTLAND’s game against Japan at BT Murrayfield on Saturday will not only be a chance for the home team to end the year on a high. It should also demonstrate definitively just how much Gregor Townsend’s team have improved since the sides last met two years ago.

That meeting at the 2019 Rugby World Cup ended in a 28-21 win for the Japanese, a result that saw the Scots eliminated at the pool stage for only the second time in the history of the tournament. Jamie Ritchie was excellent that day, with Fraser Brown not far behind, but on the whole it was an underwhelming performance which provoked a lot of soul-searching in the weeks and months that followed.

Midway between World Cups, there is little doubt that this Scotland side is consistently better than the one that travelled to the last tournament. And Rory Lawson, for one, is confident that they can keep up the improvement over the coming couple of years as well.

A member of the Amazon Prime Video commentary team for the Autumn Nations Series, the former Scotland scrum-half and captain has an ideal vantage point from which to assess the team. He is convinced that there has been a raising of standards across the board, with the leadership of head coach Townsend and a core group of players continually driving performances upwards.

“The performances are linked to the growth of the individuals and the collective, and I think that comes from experience,” Lawson said. “It’s so important to have individuals who can drive the team, who can inspire others and generate belief within the squad. 

“I think Gregor has changed since the Rugby World Cup: he understands that his role is to create an environment in which the leaders in the squad have the opportunity to drive things. I spoke to him on the touchline, probably 30 minutes before kick-off against South Africa last week, and he was standing back. He didn’t have a whistle in his hands: he was watching on as Stuart Hogg, Stuart McInally and Jamie Ritchie ran the team plays and defensive stuff in preparation for the game. 

“I really see huge growth in people like Ali Price, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Zander Fagerson and Jamie Ritchie. And you’re seeing that starting to drip down into the wider squad. I think there has been real incremental improvement across loads of areas that has led to the greater performance of the team.”

The winner of 31 caps between 2006 and 2010, Lawson was often involved in an intense fight for the No 9 jersey with Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair - a situation that is paralleled in the present squad by Glasgow trio Price, George Horne and Jamie Dobie. Horne is hopeful of being named for a first start in two years when Townsend announces his team today, but Lawson believes that the likely nature of the contest means it makes sense to stick with Price. 

“Ali might just have the edge on George with regard to his game management in the first three quarters of the game. It might be that George looks for a higher-tempo option when it’s not there, while Ali will put his foot on the ball and say ‘Right, let’s get ourselves 25 metres further up the pitch’ with a perfectly executed box kick.

“George can’t lose sight of what makes him him. He will create something out of nothing. And it will be a continuous battle as to when he brings into play the right thing to do for the team and holds back what might be natural to him.”

The pandemic has restricted Japan’s opportunities of playing Test rugby over the past couple of years, but Lawson believes they can still be dangerous opponents in two days’ time. Having said that, he reckons that Scotland will have enough to win with something to spare.

“It’s a tough one to predict, because Japan have struggled a little bit to get going but I think they have a performance in them. They will come to BT Murrayfield with a lot of confidence having beaten Scotland at the World Cup. 

“But Scotland have really shifted the dial since the World Cup. In attack they’ve shown more variety, and have become more conservative at times when they need to be to leave themselves less exposed, and they’ve become more ruthless defensively.        

“I think Scotland will win with a bit of comfort, albeit it will be a cracking game between two sides who love playing high-tempo rugby. Scotland by let’s say 18 to 20.”


Rory Lawson was speaking on behalf of Amazon Prime Video for its coverage of the Autumn Nations Series. To watch the Autumn Nations Series on Amazon Prime Video costs £7.99 a month, while for new members there is a free 30-day trial.