DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield Stadium
A WINNING end to Scotland’s Autumn Test schedule, meaning their record for the series is three and one, but this was not the performance Gregor Townsend’s side will have wanted to have signed off with.
The home side generally struggled to keep control of possession for long enough to really stress their opponents, and their indiscipline meant that Japan were able to stay in touch on the scoreboard throughout.
It wasn’t a disastrous performance but neither was it an emphatic demonstration of the progress we have been assured that this team has made over the course of 2020 and 2021. This Japan side is not of the same calibre as the battle-hardened outfit the Scots lost to at the 2019 World Cup.
Next up is the 2022 Six Nations, starting with a home match against England on 5th February. It is a game that Scotland will have no problem motivating themselves for, but they will have to play with a lot more control and accuracy if they want to double-up on this year’s historic win at Twickenham.
Having controlled possession for the first three and a half minutes, Japan then gave away a penalty through second-row James Moore advancing in front of the kicker, which allowed Finn Russell to kick for touch, establishing the field position from which Duhan van der Merwe joined the forwards and rumbled over for the opening try a few minutes later. Russell’s conversion came back off the post.
A sequence of fairly soft penalties conceded by Scotland allowed Japan a quick route back into the match with a fairly straight forward shot at goal which Rikiya Matsuda had no problem gobbling up.
The lesson was not learnt, and after two more not-rolling away penalties, the second committed by Chris Harris, Matsuda found himself lining up another shot at goal on the quarter-hour mark, although he wasn’t successful with his effort from wide on the right this time.
Scotland threatened when Sam Johnson toe-poked a clever grubber past the Japanese defensive line for midfield Harris to chase down, but the visitors did well to tidy up and Jamie Ritchie gave away another penalty against the hosts for hands in a ruck.
Scott Cummings was the next culprit, with referee Brendon Pickerill having a word with captain Stuart Hogg about the slowness of his players in getting away from the tackle area, warning that cards would be issued if things didn’t improve. This time, Matsuda had no problem helping himself to three more easy points from almost directly in front of the posts to edge the visitors ahead.
It had been frustrating first 25 minutes for the home side and their supporters, but then Hogg brought Murrayfield to life when he started an attack by running the ball back from deep, then finished it off after a handful of forceful phases pulled the Japanese backline all out of shape. It was his 25th Scotland try, meaning he had moved out on his own as the nations most prolific try-scorer, having equalled that record previously held by Tony Stanger and Ian Smith with his brace against South Africa last week.
Scotland finished the half with a flourish when a set-move off a scrum on the left saw Russell sweep outside his centres then feed Darcy Graham with a miss-two pass through the eye of a needle, and the winger jinked back inside Japans’ scrambling defence to score. Russell added the touchline conversion for good measure.
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The start of the second half followed a familiar pattern to much of the first half, and Pickerill finally lost patience, sending Jamie Bhatti to the sin-bin when he ended up on the wrong side of a tackle right in front of his own posts. Matsuda once again kicked the easy points.
Buoyed by this, Japan pressed again, aided by – mindless chip kick from Russell which gifted them possession. Second-row Jack Cornelsen sent prop Craig Millar on a charge up the middle of the park, and Kotaro Matsushima went close on the right, before play was pulled back for a Scots offside and Matsuda made it 19-12.
Scotland managed to wrestle back some control and not only did they survive the remainder of that period with 14-men without conceding any more points, they also got themselves into a position for Russell to kick an offside penalty into the corner just before being restored to full complement.
At this point, Stuart McInally came off the bench at hooker to find his jumper at the line-out, and he was then the man who got the downward pressure after the hosts had driven over the Japanese try-line.
Japan bounced back when an excellent 50-22 from Ryoto Nakamura earned a close-range line-out. The visitors did well to win the ball under pressure, and replacement back-row Tevita Tatafu took advantage of Scotland leaving themselves short on deck by going all-out to win the ball in the air, spinning off the maul and driving over the line.
When a Sam Johnson offside with 10 minutes to go allowed Matsuda to kick his fifth penalty of the afternoon, it was back to a six point game, which really wasn’t great from a Scotland perspective given that they were 4-1 up in the try-count and hadn’t really been under the sort of pressure to justify the avalanche of penalties they had conceded.
With two minutes to go, Scotland opted to kick a penalty rather than go for the corner, and Russell bisected the posts. It sealed the win but highlighted that the home side had not got to where they wanted to be during this contest.
Scotland: S Hogg; D Graham (B Kinghorn 63), C Harris, S Johnson, D van der Merwe; F Russell , A Price (G Horne, 61); J Bhatti (P Schoeman 53), G Turner (S McInally 53), Z Fagerson (J Sebastian 63), S Cummings (S Skinner 71), G Gilchrist, J Ritchie (M Fagerson 61), H Watson (P Schoeman 49-53, D Richardson 71), J Bayliss.
Japan: R Yamanka (Y Tamura 61); K Matsushima, S Nakano (D Riley 41), R Nakamura, S Fifita; R Matsuda, Y Nagare (N Saito 71); C Millar (K Inagaki 61), A Sakate, A Valu (S Kakinaga 61), J Cornelsen, J Moore, M Leitch (T Tatafu 61), P Labuschagne, K Himeno.
Scotland: Tries: Van der Merwe, Hogg; Graham, McInally; Cons: Russell 3; Pen: Russell.
Wales: Try: Tatafu; Pen: Matsuda 5.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 5-0; 5-3; 5-6; 10-6; 12-6; 17-6; 19-6 (h-t) 19-9; 19-12; 24-12; 26-12; 26-17; 26-20; 29-20.
Yellow cards –
Scotland: Bhatti (42mins)