TWO late tries by Japan denied a much-improved Scotland what would have been a morale-boosting victory in their second and final Autumn Test. The home side were 20-10 up after an hour of an even and entertaining battle, but the visitors, ranked four places below Scotland, claimed two full scores late on to grab what was over the piece a deserved win.
After a dispiriting 17-3 defeat by Wales a week earlier, however, head coach Philip Doyle was at least able to reflect on some positive aspects of this performance, while accepting that his squad still have a lot to work on before their next outing, against Spain in January.
“I’ll take the positives out of the game, particularly the front five – I’m delighted with the work they did during the week,” he said. “They had to take a lot of criticism during the week, they identified what went wrong, and without doubt they played the game plan to a T from a set-piece point of view.
“The result has set us back quite a bit from a world-ranking point of view. But we keep learning a massive amount. I’m putting the girls under a massive amount of pressure all the time, and they’re working incredibly hard.”
Scotland got off to the brightest of starts, taking the lead through an unconverted try from Megan Gaffney with barely three minutes on the clock. Jenny Maxwell sparked the move when she tapped and went with a penalty, Lisa Cockburn made good ground on the right, and when the ball came back down the left, there was just enough room for the winger to squeeze in at the left corner, the scoring pass coming from Chloe Rollie.
But such a morale-boosting beginning to proceedings was soon undone when Japan scored two tries in three minutes, both benefiting from some lame tackling by the home defence. Right-winger Noriko Taniguchi got the first, again from a tap and go, then flanker Seina Saito put her team ahead, finishing off a counter-attack after left-winger Anna Kasai had been stopped a few metres short. Ai Hirayama was short with both conversion attempts, and also just missed a penalty after quarter of an hour.
It took Scotland a while to come to terms with going behind, but they steadily improved as the half went on, with Sarah Bonar putting in some impressive ball-carrying and Rachel McLachlan showing up well at the breakdown. Having realised that an all-out running game would play into Japan’s hands, the home team began to use the maul to some effect, and it paid off five minutes from the break when Lisa Cockburn finished off a move after a penalty had been sent to touch. Helen Nelson’s conversion attempt was wide, which made it 10-10 at the break.
Japan were on top for the early stages of the second half, but their best chance of regaining the lead at that point disappeared when a scrum five was held up. Having defended successfully for a spell, Scotland then went upfield and scored two more tries to take what looked like a decisive grip on the game.
Gaffney got her second score after heavy pressure finally produced an overlap on the left, and then captain Rachel Malcolm made it 20-10 off the back of another maul from a penalty kicked to touch. There were still nearly 20 minutes to play after the captain’s try, and Japan gradually edged back into the game.
Substitute Makoto Ebuchi threw them a lifeline with a try by the posts after heavy pressure, and Hirayama converted to make it 20-17. That was with eight minutes left, and the score invigorated the visitors, who could see that a win was there for the taking.
The decisive score came with just two minutes left. After gaining good ground from a penalty, the visitors ploughed on through the middle, and another substitute, Ayasa Otsuka, finished off, with Hirayama again converting.
“It was a little bit of poor decision-making in the last ten minutes rather than not being able to deal with the tempo,” Malcolm said of the way the game got out of Scotland’s grasp. “That’s a big learning point for us.”
Scotland: C Rollie; R Lloyd, H Smith, L Thomson, M Gaffney; H Nelson, J Maxwell; L Cockburn, R Malcolm, M Forsyth, E Wassell, S Bonar, L McMillan, R McLachlan, J Konkel. Subs: I Drexler, P Muzambe, A Young, C Belisle, E Tonkin, M Grieve, S Denholm, A Evans.
Japan: A Hirayama; N Taniguchi, A Suzuki, K Kobayashi, A Kasai; M Yamamoto, M Tsukui; S Kato, M Fujimoto, S Minami, A Sakurai, Y Sato, S Saito, K Hosokawa, M Takano. Subs: M Ebuchi, A Kokaji, K Tamai, M Suzuki, S Konishi, M Abe, A Otsuka, M Furuta.
Referee: C Munarini (Italy).
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Gaffney 2, Cockburn, Malcolm.
Japan: Tries: Taniguchi, Saito, Ebuchi, Otsuka. Cons: Hirayama 2.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 5-0, 5-5, 5-10, 10-10 half-time, 15-10, 20-10, 20-15, 20-17, 20-22, 20-24.
Attendance: 2, 263.