On Monday, Greig Laidlaw made a surprising announcement: he would be joining NTT Shining Arcs on a two-year deal. Laidlaw, who retired from international rugby following last year’s Rugby World Cup, decided it was time for a final challenge: a move to the exciting and emerging rugby scene in Japan.
"It's an awesome opportunity to go and experience a different rugby culture”, the scrum-half said, “you only get one or two awesome opportunities in your career and I think if I didn't take this one I would regret it forever.”
Inspired by Japan’s rugby culture
The 34-year old, who has played at Top 14 side Clermont Auvergne since 2017, says that spending an extended period of time in Japan during the World Cup made him realise he would like to live there.
“It gave me the confidence to go for it and sign up,” the former British and Irish Lion says.
"The people are really helpful and respectful which goes a long way to making it more comfortable even though it's such a different country. The travel and everything is geared up and well organised, which makes all the little things easier."
The dad of two shared that this could be potentially his last professional move.
“Obviously, you never know what is around the corner and I’m certainly not getting any younger”, he says. “I’ve signed a two-year deal in Japan, so I think if I can stay and play these two years, I’ll be fairly happy to call it a day.”
His young family are moving with him, and Laidlaw says his children are excited by how close his new training facilities are to Disneyland Tokyo.
A final challenge
Japan’s fast style of rugby, which brought some explosive and memorable games at recent Rugby World Cups, is a new challenge for Laidlaw, who has become used to the physicality of France’s Top 14 league.
"It's going to be different”, Laidlaw laughs. “They do play that different sort of style which is definitely similar to Super Rugby, maybe with the skill level not being quite there yet. It's getting better all the time, but it's certainly a good challenge for me.
“Obviously I've been playing in France for the last three years and the Premiership before that so it's going to be different, it's going to be quicker. A little bit more running, and less physicality but it's going to be exciting and really skilful.
"I think it will suit me for sure, but it will definitely test me. It will test my fitness which is good. If the ball is in play more then I'm all for that and I want to play that good brand of rugby that is attractive."
International players seek move to Japan
The attacking rugby Japan play, which saw a 28-21 win over Scotland, was mesmerising for fans during Rugby World Cup 2019. Japan beat Scotland, not just on points, but on the number of runs, metres carried, and the number of clean breaks, making them one of the most exciting teams to watch in international rugby.
The Scotland star, who captained his country a record-breaking 39 times, is one of many foreign players inspired to sign for Japanese clubs following Rugby World Cup 2019.
All Blacks star Beauden Barrett recently signed for Tokyo club Suntory Sungoliath, and both England second-row George Kruis and Wales centre Hadleigh Parkes recently announced they were signing for Panasonic Wild Knights.
Laidlaw says that Japan are signing players who match the faster style of play Japan is trying to achieve both at the domestic and international level. "They have got all the tools to be successful”, Laidlaw says. “I think they are well-placed and it will be interesting to see how they will develop over the next few years".
Japan is rising fast up the world ranks, and these key signings in their domestic leagues promise an exciting few years for the Brave Blossoms before Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.