JAPAN’S rugby revolution proved short lived as Scotland got their World Cup campaign off to a successful start with a bonus-point win in Gloucester, although they left it late.
Four first-half penalties from the boot of Greig Laidlaw gave the Scots an early lead before they grabbed five tries in the final 32 minutes of the match with centre Mark Bennett bagging a brace in the space of 14 minutes.
The Scotland skipper got the man of the match gong but David Denton, Matt Scott and John Hardie in particular were in the thick of the action throughout, especially in the backs-to-the-wall defence in the middle of the match.
Oddly enough, the Scots looked a little leaden-footed when they played route one rugby through the forwards but they posed a constant danger out wide, even if the blue shirts had to wait to the final half hour before filling their boots. With the bonus point secured, the Scots now top Pool B.
The final score flattered the winners as this game was anyone’s right up to the final quarter when two things undermined the Japanese efforts. The first was the loss of influential No 8 Naki Mafi who was carted off ten minutes into the second half. Possibly even more important was a short four-day turnaround since their remarkable 34-32 victory over the Springboks, because fatigue was at the heart of Japan’s late collapse.
Scotland got off to the perfect start, Finn Russell capitalising on turnover ball, kicking deep and Stuart Hogg harrying
Kotaro Matsushima into touch for an early attacking lineout. The Japanese infringed and Laidlaw earned the first three of his 20 points with just two minutes on the clock.
When he repeated the trick on the ten-minute mark the Scots were 6-0 to the good, Japan had hardly touched the ball and everything was going swimmingly, which is when Japan woke up. They bossed the final 20 minutes of the first half and the opening ten of the second, coming within two points of the Scots and giving them any number of problems.
The muscular No 8 Mafi scored the opening try of the match from a five-metre lineout 15 minutes into the game. Japan tried the same tactic again but, while the Scots stopped them at source, still the Asians dominated the second quarter even if they had little effect on the scoreboard, which was stuck stubbornly on 12-7 after two more Laidlaw kicks. Winger Matsushima spent ten minutes in the cooler, not that you would have noticed, with all the action now taking place inside the Scots’ half of the field.
What will worry defence coach Matt Taylor is the ease with which the red-and-white jerseys made inroads into the Scottish line thanks to the speed of delivery and the canny angles they picked. As soon as Japan put pace on the ball, the Scots found themselves backpedalling, stretched and stressed with players calling for reinforcements as another red and white wave came at them.
When the Scots did clear their lines, the Japanese were back knocking on their try-line just a few plays later. In one attack in the shadow of the Scottish posts No 8 Mafi literally went over the top in an effort to grab his second score.
While under the cosh, the set piece rescued the Scots more than once, particularly the scrum where they milked penalties remorselessly while maintaining good discipline themselves.
Japan started the second half like men possessed amd Mafi twice made his muscular presence felt. Only some sharp work by the covering Russell saved Scotland’s blushes on the first occasion and Hogg did the needful in defence on the second but the Scots looked ripe for the taking when Ayumu Goromaru narrowed the gap to just 12-10 after Scott was lured offside.
That also proved to be Mafi’s last contribution to the match as he was stretchered off the field with a leg injury that might have gone some way to determining the result. The fans in the stadium certainly figured as much, striking up Flower of Scotland while the medics did their stuff.
Just when it looked as if Japan would claim another major scalp, the floodgates opened at the other end of the field as the four-day turnaround finally took its toll on some bruised and battered bodies and the Scots ran in five unanswered tries.
Hardie scored the first, crucial, five pointer after the best move of the match. The Scots used the inside ball to open the Japanese defence, Hardie realised he was being tackled into touch and flipped the ball out the back. It fell nicely to Scott who fed Hogg who was held on the line. Finally Laidlaw fed Hardie, who had remained on the left wing and the flanker squeezed into the corner.
Scotland went to sleep at the restart, let the ball bounce and put themselves under all sorts of pressure as a result. Not long after Goromaru was lining up another kick, only this one bounced off the woodwork and the Scots scored just minutes later after Hogg had sliced the Japanese defence wide open and Mark Bennett took an inside pass from Laidlaw to scoot under the sticks.
Eight minutes later, Japan were threatening and Seymour again intercepted what looked like a scoring pass and went the length of the field.
He was followed over the Japanese line by Bennett and Russell in quick succession as the Japanese finished this game on their knees.
Scorers: Scotland – Tries: Hardie, Seymour, Bennett (2), Russell. Cons: Laidlaw (4). Pens: Laidlaw (4). Japan – Try: Mafi. Cons: Goromaru. Pen: Goromaru.
Scotland: Hogg (Maitland 65), Lamont, Bennett (Horne 75), Scott, Seymour; Russell, Laidlaw; Dickinson (Grant 64), Ford (Brown 70), Nel (Welsh 70), Gilchrist (R Gray 49), J Gray, Wilson (Strauss 57), Hardie, Denton.
Japan: Goromaru, Matsushima, S’au, Tamura, Fukuoka; Tatekawa, Tanaka; Inagaka (Mikami 40), Horie, Yamashita (Hatakeyama 47), Thompson, Ives, Leitch, Broadhurst, Mafi.