Rewatching the video of the South Africa v Japan match, without the preconceptions and emotion of the real-time experience, it is hard not to try to rationalise the result and to attach after- the-fact significance to certain aspects of the game.
So, maybe, Japan won because they have perfected the chop tackle, or they were better organised, or because South Africa picked a team that was too old or undercooked. Any one of these, or a hundred other little things, may have been contributing factors to the win, but, on any other day, they would just have been features of another plucky losing display by one of the minnows, and quickly forgotten.
There is no doubting the quality of the Japanese performance, or the huge amount of effort they must have put in over the past four years to get to this point. But sometimes you just have to accept that you have witnessed a result that exists right at the top of the curve of probability, and that trying to retrospectively impose a framework of logic onto it is pointless.
So many things had to align for Japan to win that match. South Africa weren’t terrible, but they did butcher at least three certain scoring chances, allowing the Japanese to always remain within a few points. The longer this went on, the more fascinating it became to see the demeanour of legends of the game like Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger alter, their usual calm assurance gradually shifting into frustration and then ultimately pure panic.
Conversely, Japan had three chances to score tries and took them all. But even in the nerveless passage of play leading up to their final try, a more pernickety referee (George Clancy, say) could have pinged them at almost any of their rucks for sealing off. Sometimes the gods are just on your side, and this was one of those days when everything went perfectly for many of the Japanese.
Numerous TV close-ups showed players like Michael Leitch and Ayumu Goromaru looking almost serene, with that blank facial expression you see on the best sportsmen when they are completely in the moment. They seemed like men focused purely on the process rather than worrying about any possible outcome. This certainly wasn’t a victory based on raw passion. You could say that it is easier to get into that Zen-like state when there is no real pressure on you to win, but it’s still a pretty impressive way to approach the biggest match of your life.
Vern Cotter seems to be a coach who places a similar emphasis on process over outcome, that if you get every detail of your own game right, the result will follow. To watch, for example, Jonny Gray, pictured right, on the pitch is to witness someone locked in his own little world of concentration and effort, thinking no further ahead than the next play. I think that is why, when the Scotland camp say they have not looked beyond this game, it is probably the truth. There is no way of predicting where we will be after today in terms of the result, performance or injuries, and you imagine that Cotter’s approach to selection for Sunday’s game against the USA will depend on all of those factors. It can be a fool’s errand to try to plan a World Cup campaign too minutely – just look at the predicament Wales now find themselves in with injuries, or at England struggling to settle on their best XV.
All that matters right now is this opener, and the planning for it will have been meticulous. You imagine that there will have been a big emphasis on accuracy at the breakdown, as Japan’s defence is very quick into position and they are prepared to commit numbers to disrupting and contesting opposition ball, as South Africa discovered early on to their cost.
Some of the talk of Japan’s chop tackling seems like bandwagon jumping, as there was also plenty of evidence of dominant, torso-high hits from Japan’s back row. Either way, their individual tackle technique is pretty good, and Scotland’s forward runners will be looking to find arms rather than shoulders using that little extra pass they are so adept at. South Africa were too predictable off nine, and often ended up being gang tackled.
In attack, Japan didn’t do anything revolutionary, but there was an impressive accuracy to their passing and intensity to their running. Scotland will be conscious of their switch-back plays, where they hit up once off a lineout then head back down the blindside, and will have worked hard on maintaining their defensive integrity around the ruck, as the Japanese scrum halves like to pull the first two defenders onto them before putting a forward into the half gap.
An area which Scotland will have to approach with real aggression is stopping their lineout drive, a slight weakness in this year’s Six Nations. Steve Borthwick, Japan’s forwards coach, may have had his knockers during his playing career, but there have never been any doubts about his ability to organise a world-class lineout. The precision with which Japan set up the simple shift drive for their first try had Borthwick’s obsessive attention to detail written all over it. Scotland have to recognise that situation as quickly as possible and whip the ball-carrier to ground, as if he stays up they will likely be faced with a 12-man maul.
But, overall, our defence has been very good over the warm-up games. And look at this Scotland team; are we concerned that John Hardie or Grant Gilchrist won’t be fiercely competitive, or that Finn Russell or Stuart Hogg might suffer from first-night nerves? I wouldn’t have said so. You would expect an organised, committed and hard-working display today. The outcome will take care of itself.