Scotland trailed for much of the first half of their first Test on tour in Japan, but came back to lead 16-10 at half-time and ended up winning 26-13. Rory Baldwin suggests what might be learned from this hard-fought match.
Japan know how they want to play
Luckily for Scotland the Brave Blossoms only really clicked once during the first Test, and that was ten minutes in. Scrum-half Kaito Shigeno launched a superb counter-attacking try that will have Scotland defence coach Matt Taylor in tears, but it delighted the home crowd at the Toyota Stadium.
The buzz from the crowd whenever Japan attempted to run the ball – which was always, even with just 36% possession overall – showed the way the fans want their team to play. When it works as it did under Eddie Jones in the World Cup, it is highly entertaining, but they did not execute sufficiently well to get past a dogged Scottish team on Saturday.
Get it moving, Greig
On the other hand, Scottish captain Greig Laidlaw wasn’t there to entertain, but to play Test match rugby. He milked (and kicked) every penalty he could get from favourable referee Ben O’ Keeffe and although the final scoreline was comfortable, Scotland never really got out of second gear.
The speed of the Japanese defensive line put the Scots under constant pressure. Frequently, the ball was placed back by a tackled player with Laidlaw still some way off. With the defence reset, big carriers like the Ryan Wilson and the Gray brothers found it much harder to punch holes and build momentum to unleash the backs.
At times it was too ponderous, never more so than during the Munster-style keep ball to run down the clock in the final minutes. With the win already secure, where’s the ambition?
Front row depth will be tested
Try-scorer WP Nel left the game just past the hour mark with a knee injury, while stalwart loosehead Al Dickinson went off after just three minutes. The rejuvenated Moray Low should be able to fill in if required although Nel said after the game that he should recover in time. Rory Sutherland had a good enough 77 minutes to earn a start ahead of Gordon Reid who has been called up to the tour in place of Dickinson.
Things are a little less clear cut at hooker, where Stuart McInally had a wobbly day at the set piece, misfiring on a few throws and getting his positioning wrong on an attacking lineout close to the Japanese line when, had he gathered Wilson’s pop pass, he would have had a great scoring chance. However the converted back row put in some big tackles, and showed the ball-carrying ability that makes him perhaps the most well-rounded challenger to Ross Ford – if he can sort the lineout. Fraser Brown played well off the bench too and Ford could potentially recover from injury to earn his 100th cap. Scotland coach Vern Cotter has at least one pleasant selection problem ahead of the second Test.
Changes for next week?
Front row aside, the medics are tending to two of Scotland’s standout players in Ryan Wilson and Duncan Taylor. Even if he doesn’t have to, Cotter has indicated he may want to shuffle his deck and give all of his tourists game time. So we could see the destructive running of Dave Denton and/or Josh Strauss (John Barclay is another injury worry).
Peter Horne might be swapped with Ruaridh Jackson in the ongoing search for Finn Russell’s ideal understudy, and elsewhere in the backs Damien Hoyland deserves a second start if Cotter is still aiming for “organised chaos”. If he is, there’s an argument for giving Henry Pyrgos a start ahead of Laidlaw, but Cotter isn’t much of a gambler and will want to keep the spine of his team intact.
The bench may well see some changes, in particular getting Edinburgh-born Stormers centre Huw Jones a first cap to tie him to Scotland.
If Japan control their discipline, it will be a much tighter game
The hosts had two yellow cards, were down to 13 men at one point and conceded 16 penalties including a penalty try for Rikiya Matsuda’s slap down of a try-scoring pass to Tommy Seymour. They were penalised for technical offences right the way through.
If they can cut that from their game in the second Test, it will be a much closer affair next weekend in Tokyo despite the continued absence of Rugby World Cup stars Michael Leitch and Ayumu Goromaru. The dynamic duo of Amanaki Mafi and Hendrik Tui will always keep Scotland honest at the breakdown, and if Japan improve their concentration in terms of discipline and handling next week, Scotland will need to step it up a level or two to win the series in the comfort they would like to.