Image courtesy of Scottish Rugby/SNS Group
A SOLID rather than spectacular win for Scotland. There are undoubtedly things to work on, but there were enough positives individually and collectively for this to be categorised as a good day at the office.
There was bound to be a bit of rustiness given how little rugby most of the squad have played in the last month, but the impact of this was minimalized by the visitors getting the tempo and general shape of the game spot-on. Apart from a brief scare early on when Japan caught Scotland napping to score a splendid breakaway try, the controlled aggression of Vern Cotter’s men throughout the remainder of the match – especially from their marauding back-row – ensured that the result was never really In doubt.
“It was a good win for us. We probably need to tighten up and be a bit more accurate, we let Japan off the hook a couple of times, [but] it’s the first game we have had for a long time and we will look to improve for next week as well,” was the typically accurate and succinct post-match analysis from captain Greig Laidlaw.
Scotland suffered an early set-back when Alasdair Dickinson hobbled off with a hamstring injury but they seemed to take this in their stride, scoring the game’s first points a few moments later when Laidlaw clipped over a textbook penalty from almost directly in front of the posts.
Any inclination towards relaxing into the match was promptly obliterated when a quick tap penalty sent Amanaki Mafi on a powerful surge which was carried on by Harumichi Tatekawa. This clearly caught Scotland flat-footed, and the move culminated in hooker Shota Horie strolling over, virtually unchallenged, under the shadow of the posts.
The Scots seemed flustered. The restart went out on the full, they were penalised at the subsequent scrum, and then overthrew a line-out, but some loose handling and undisciplined breakdown play from Japan helped steady the nerves, with two more Laidlaw penalties putting the visitors back in front.
A monstrous penalty from Yu Tamura restored Japan’s lead, but the Scots were now beginning to build some momentum.
Hendrik Tui was yellow-carded for coming in from the side to derail a driven line-out five yards from the Japanese line, and as the pressure continued to build the home team’s defence became increasingly frantic, with penalty after penalty being conceded.
When Rikiya Matsuda slapped the ball forward as Stuart Hogg tried to exploit an overlap on the right, referee Ben O’Keeffe had little hesitation in issuing a second yellow-card and awarding a penalty try.
With a six point lead and a two man advantage at the start of the second half, Scotland wasted little time in forcing the issue, Damian Hoyland went close after collecting Ruaridh Jackson’s well-weighted cross-field dink, but was stopped just short of the whitewash, before WP Nel rumbled over from close range just three minutes after the resumption of hostilities.
Scotland were now in a commanding position but could not extend their lead. Hogg and John Hardie both came close, as did Tommy Seymour when he outstripped the cover defence to be first to Laidlaw’s kick into space, but the winger’s hack ahead was slightly too strong and the ball bobbled harmlessly over the dead-ball line before he could reach it.
In the end, scoring during the final 36 minutes was restricted to an exchange of penalties between Tamura and Laidlaw.
Dickinson’s injury, and the fact that WP Nel had a fairly pronounced limp when he came off during the second-half, means there may be an issue at prop for the rematch in Tokyo next Saturday – but Vern Cotter’s men showed enough here to suggest that they might be ready to test themselves without those two stalwarts (even if that means replacements need to be flown out to sit on the bench).
Japan: K Matsushima (R Matsuda 15); M Paea, T Bennetts, H Tatekawa, Y Sasakura; Y Tamura, K Shigeno (K Uchida 40); K Inagaki, S Horie, K Hatakeyama, H Ono, N Kotaki, H Tui, S Ki, A Mafi.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, D Taylor (P Horne 66), M Scott, D Hoyland (S Maitland 56); R Jackson, G Laidlaw; A Dickinson (R Sutherland 3), S McInally (F Brown 47), W Nel (M Low 64), R Gray (T Swinson 66), J Gray, J Barclay, J Hardie, R Wilson (D Denton 64).
Japan: Try: Horie; Con: Tamura; Pen: Tamura 2.
Scotland: Try: Penalty Try, Nel; Con: Laidlaw 2; Pen: Laidlaw 4
Man-of-the-Match: The Indian summer continues for the elegantly combative John Barclay.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)