Scotland returned from the Far East with a 2-0 series win, but did Vern Cotter's men emerge in debit or credit? Rory Baldwin passes judgement
1. Will the real Scotland please stand up
Disappointingly, we didn’t see much of an identity from Scotland on this tour. They played with some confidence to win the first Test the previous week, but in Tokyo on Saturday they were at times awful with ball in hand.
The selection of a more attack-minded team with Henry Pyrgos as leader seemed to backfire in the humid conditions, with tiredness and a slippery ball – hopefully not a sudden manifestation of poor skills – putting paid to attempts to run a Glasgow-style offloading game.
Scotland never really looked settled in the second Test, and this time around they were facing a more determined home side who scored one of the tries of the season through Kaito Shigeno – the game’s only one.
2. Some positives
Stuart Hogg’s big boot is now a reliable pressure release valve and it’s positive to see him used as more than just a counter-attacking weapon as part of Scotland’s tactical make-up. All that extra territory is very useful.
There was a first cap for Huw Jones, who snaffled a vital turnover when Japan were attacking the Scottish line in the last quarter of the match. Scotland went on to win successive scrum penalties that propelled them up the pitch for Greig Laidlaw’s decisive penalty. We await more of Jones in a Scotland shirt in future – he may not be fifth-choice centre for long.
Worrying though was the inability of other challengers – Stuart McInally, Pyrgos, Ruaridh Jackson – to make serious claims for the starting berths come the autumn. Conditions were not ideal, but those two games are all Vern Cotter has to go on and he won’t be chalking Ross Ford, Laidlaw or Finn Russell off just yet.
3. Greig Laidlaw the saviour again
He gets a lot of stick but things were considerably gloomier for Scotland before Laidlaw came off the bench after 52 minutes. The Gloucester scrum-half added some pace and direction to Scotland’s play – they still didn’t execute very well but were at least going forward. His pinpoint goalkicking also allowed Scotland to capitalise on Japanese indiscipline – the same issue that undid them the previous week.
There was another grating spell of ‘up the jumper’ rugby at the end rather than anything resembling confidence in an ability to score tries, but Laidlaw did what he had to in order to secure the win and the series. It may not be entertaining to watch but right now Scotland win more when he is playing.
4. Conditions in 2019 will be different
Laidlaw had tape on his fingers to help grip the ball better in the sweaty conditions of the Ajinomoto Stadium. Many of his team-mates might have profited from some Velcro, or even super glue, so great was the number of handling errors.
Scotland’s Test series was played in Japan’s summer but the 2019 World Cup will be played during the cooler and less humid autumn. Scotland have learned about the culture and the travelling environment, and that is valuable experience. But as a replica of the playing environment, one can only hope things will be quite different.
Given the number of dropped balls on show over the last two Saturdays, this will probably be a good thing for the tournament as a spectacle.
5. Not a tour to set pulses racing
Yes, Scotland have won a series under difficult conditions. But compare it to Ireland, who nearly pulled off a three-Test series win against the Springboks with a number of front-line players missing, and a ‘no-backward-steps’ attitude. England had their front line available, and Eddie Jones masterminded a whitewash of Australia, again over three matches.
In contrast, Scotland won two Tests (by 26-13 and 21-16) by playing uninspired rugby and never put together anything that really looked like a performance. While Jones is working with largely the same English player group that were so insipid in the World Cup, so Cotter is deploying mostly the same Scottish guys who impressed in 2015.
They haven’t suddenly all become different players but the way they played in Japan, Scotland are not the box-office draw needed to secure a summer series against one of the big three in future, or indeed mid-table prosperity in the Six Nations.
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On this evidence they still have some way to go to get there.