EVEN by the standards of the Scottish Rugby Union, who don’t ever need a second invitation to revel in their own magnificence, it all seemed a bit extravagant.
Having met in the reception area under the West Stand at Murrayfield Stadium yesterday [Wednesday] morning, the press pack were ushered through the changing room zone and out the tunnel onto the main pitch, where trendy-young-media-types and cool-as-you-like-politicos were mingling. A conference table in the middle of the scene was bedecked in royal blue cloth and flanked by a couple of mannequins wearing Scotland international rugby shirts.
Suddenly a delegation of around 50 Japanese guests appeared at the back of the West Stand accompanied by what seemed like every recognisable figure from within Murrayfield’s corridors of power – including Chairman of the Board Sir Moir Lockhead, record cap holder Chris Paterson and everybody’s favourite medic Dr James Robson (fresh from keyhole surgery on his knee – he’s doing fine!).
Slowly, this august group descended the stairs towards pitch-side while the rest of us were shown to our seats in preparation for the big moment. Finally, Mark Dodson (Chief Executive of the Scottish Rugby Union) and Tomihisa Taue (Mayor of Nagasaki) reached the conference table and sat down. Then, with Rob Flockhart (the newly appointed President of the SRU) and Masanao Maiguma (Chairman of Nagasaki City Council) standing solemnly to attention in the background, some very important looking documents were signed.
Afterwards, we half expected Dodson to wave his sheet of paper in the air whilst proclaiming an immortal catchphrase which would echo through the ages – something along the lines of ‘peace in our time’. Alas, all we got was some polite applause from the rather bemused crowd.
Photographs were taken for posterity and a painting of Murrayfield was presented to the ever-swelling gaggle of grey-suited, middle-aged Japanese gentlemen who were now congregating behind the table. However, the entertainment wasn’t over yet.
Out of the tunnel charged the Edinburgh rugby team, who then lined up along the West Stand touchline, bowed in unison towards Murrayfield’s esteemed guests, before charging off to start their training session on the main pitch. “That’s not unusual, I make them do that every morning,” smiled Edinburgh’s managing director, Jonny Petrie … who was probably just joking.
And with that, the deal was done – the Japanese city of Nagasaki will host a ten day “holding camp” for the Scotland rugby team during the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup. That was it. Nothing else. That’s what all the fuss was about.
It means the squad will be based in the city as they acclimatise to Japanese conditions and the time difference before heading into their official tournament camp, which is yet to be allocated. They will have access to pitches, a gymnasium, swimming pools and accommodation, all in close proximity to Nagasaki. The agreement also outlines commitments from both parties to participate in promotional activities for each other’s benefit and to facilitate discussions with potential commercial partners.
Scotland is thought to be the first rugby nation to have put such plans in place so far in advance of the 2019 competition, and this announcement is undoubtedly good news. But was it really worth all the pomp and ceremony?
Dodson certainly thinks so. If the formality of the occasion helps demonstrate to his Japanese friends that Scottish Rugby truly respects and values the close relationship these two rugby nations have forged in recent years then he has taken another important step towards fully unlocking the huge sporting and commercial potential we all know exists in world rugby’s most exciting emerging market.
It is something he has been working towards since 2012, when he first travelled to Tokyo to meet the chairman and the president of the Japanese Rugby Union to discuss the possibility of developing a closer, mutually beneficial relationship. The first official accord between the two organisations was signed the following year.
Scotland’s willingness to become the first ever Tier One nation to invite Japan to play a full international Test match at their own national stadium in November 2013 was a key sweetener in the deal, indicating a level of respect which had been conspicuously absent in Japanese rugby’s previous dealings with the game’s traditional powerhouse nations.
“The 2013 accord is why we had Test matches at Murrayfield, we’ve had referee exchanges, coaching exchanges and age-grade exchanges with Japan. Then this deal came about before the World Cup in 2015 when Nagasaki city came to us and asked if we wanted to have our holding camp there ahead of the  World Cup,” said Dodson, yesterday.
“We sat down and had conversations, we went out there to have a look at the place and the set-up, and the enthusiasm and the far-sightedness of not only the rugby Union over there but also the prefecture and the city of Nagasaki was so encouraging.”
“Anybody who was over there in the summer [when Scotland played two Tests in Japan] knows what the conditions are like, the humidity and heat is incredible. It’s a fairly alien place so if you haven’t been there before it takes a bit of time to get used to. What we want to do is make sure that our players get very, very comfortable about being in Japan and being in Nagasaki in terms of friends and resources – so whichever city we get put to from a host perspective we’ve got friends on the ground.”
Dodson added that he is already looking ahead to Scottish Rugby’s next steps in this exciting Japanese adventure.
“We’re planning while they are over here, so we’re having more meetings where we’re talking about how many times we’ll go over there, we may send age-grade teams across there, there is a whole raft of plans between now and 2019, and then we’ll look to plan beyond that because we don’t want it to just stop there,” he said.
The goodwill already fostered has led to Scotland rugby jerseys purportedly becoming the second best seller in Japan (behind the native national strip), and Dodson will be hoping to build on that solid foundation in a country where big business has a long and proud history of investing heavily in sport (take a look at some of the team names in Japan’s top domestic rugby league, such as Panasonic Wild Knights, Yamaha Jubilo, Honda Heat and NTT Communications Shining Arcs).
“It isn’t just about doing this from a Scotland international team perspective – it has so many strands to it. We are working very, very hard on the commercial links over there. There are huge corporations based in and around Nagasaki. We don’t only have council members over here today we have businessmen and entrepreneurs from Nagasaki who want to be involved in Scotland, so you will see a series of strands to this which will come out over the next three years,” he explained.
There may even be scope for Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh to play games over there at some point in the future, as Scottish Rugby looks to grow its brand beyond north Europe, where the English and French leagues have a stranglehold over almost all major commercial development opportunities.
“Quite possibly,” confirmed Dodson. “We don’t rule anything out. It depends on what they can host in terms of pre-season games and all that kind of thing. We’re looking at those questions at the moment. It’s the sort of thing which will be in the mix.”
Image courtesy of Scottish Rugby/SNS Group