There are two knee-jerk reactions to what happened in Brighton: magnificent, now Japan can take out anyone (except perhaps the All Blacks); magnificent, but they won’t manage a repeat performance. Well, as so often, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Japan played very well indeed, but South Africa helped them to do so. The Springboks were first complacent, opting not to kick penalty goals in the first half, and then eventually rattled – no wonder, you may say.
More importantly, and this was at the heart of the Japanese achievement, South Africa were badly beaten at the breakdown, conceding far too many penalties. This was partly because, at close quarters, Japan worked in threes, one man tackling low, one high, and a third trying to wrest the ball away from the tackled Bok who, more often than not, clung on to it, and was rightly penalised. In these circumstances it’s better to concede a turnover than a penalty. Turnovers are not necessarily dangerous if your defence is organised.Penalties on the other hand are almost always costly.
Cotter will have Scotland playing faster than the elderly Springboks
One of the joys of the Japanese performance was to see their set scrum working as scrums are supposed to work. Time and again they got quick channel-one ball even when their scrum was being edged back. This, as Brian Moore has remarked, gives the lie to those who assert that it’s impossible for hookers to hook in the modern power-scrum. I don’t suppose the Japanese scrum-half was putting the ball in straight, as the law requires; but then scrum-halves rarely – never? – do so now, and referees don’t seem to care. Never mind: quick scrum ball improves the game.
I doubt if the Japanese triumph will have altered Vern Cotter’s approach to the match tomorrow. He has always said it would be tough. But Greig Laidlaw surely won’t turn down the chance to kick penalty goals, and so keep the scoreboard turning in our favour.
Then Cotter will have noted that South Africa scored four tries to Japan’s three. Two came from rolling mauls, two when a big forward ran hard to break through the Japanese midfield.
He will surely have Scotland playing a faster game than the somewhat elderly Springboks managed, and he will look to have Scotland kicking more intelligently and accurately than South Africa did. We certainly shouldn’t hesitate to put the ball into touch from our own 22 and should kick long, rolling diagonals towards the touchline from midfield.
Finally I hope we won’t forget that, against a hard-tackling defence, the grubber kick – like the one with which Freddie Michalak conjured a try for France on Saturday – and the punt to the wing are often better attacking options in the opposition 22 than repeated attempts to charge through.
In other respects, things may be equal. On one hand, Japan have a very quick turnaround after a very hard game, though we shouldn’t make too much of that – look at Andy Murray’s win on Sunday after an exhausting five-sets doubles on Saturday. On the other, it’s Scotland’s first match of the tournament and first matches are often difficult, no matter the opposition.
The tournament has made an excellent start but not without worrying features. There is, first, the excessive reliance on the television match official, and the time taken to make decisions.
Moreover, two tries have been awarded by referees, only to have the decision reversed because the referee’s attention was drawn to what was shown on the big screen in the ground. In both cases it seemed to me, relying on the same TV evidence, that the reversal was dubious, because, though both Niko Matawalu and Yoan Huget momentarily lost control of the ball before grounding it, neither ball actually seemed to go forward, so that there was no knock-on.
Ironically, if kickers had kicked quickly, the try would have stood. Lesson: if there is any doubt, take a drop-kick conversion. You still have five points even if you miss.
Referees are obeying instructions to come down severely on dangerous play – high tackles, neck-wrestling and challenges in the air. They might also take a look at the practice of a ball-carrier jumping a tackle. Jonny May, the English left wing, did this in the build-up to his side’s fourth try against Fiji and was very lucky that his boot didn’t make contact with a tackler’s head. I thought Dan Carter equally fortunate to escape a yellow card when he went in feet-first to try to stop the Argentine try and his boot struck Petti Pacadizabal on the head. The lock retired concussed.
Finally a couple of words about crowd behaviour. It was shocking to hear Richie McCaw being booed at Wembley. Steve Hansen may say that this was a mark of respect: “You don’t get booed if you’re not good”. No doubt that’s true, but it’s no way to treat one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
Second, while I’ve long thought that the haka and the equivalent pre-kick-off performances of the South Sea Island teams are tiresome and out-of-date, they should still be respected. A section of the Twickenham crowd boorishly sang their favourite Swing Low, Sweet Chariot while the Fijians went through their routine. Not the way to behave at RFU headquarters, or indeed anywhere.