Japan have always played adventurous, skilful and attractive rugby. One might say they have had little choice because they have always been out-matched physically.
This is beginning to change, partly because of professionalism, more perhaps on account of a better diet which means that in general the present generation of young Japanese men is on average taller and bigger than previous ones. Nevertheless since players in the Six Nations and southern championship countries are also taller and heavier than they used to be, there is still a physical disparity between them and the Japanese.
However, for a good many years now Japan has been attracting experienced international players from New Zealand, Australia and other countries. Consequently rugby there has become more professional, in both commonly-used senses of the word, and the national team is a more formidable proposition than it was even five or six years ago.
In the summer Japan beat Wales, though in the absence of their Lions, it was very much a Wales second XV. So too much shouldn’t be read into that result. Last week New Zealand put on more than 50 points against them – but one shouldn’t make too much of that either. Teams with better international records than Japan have suffered similar thumpings from the All Blacks. We have been on the receiving end of a good few ourselves.
It was always likely Scott Johnson would select what is pretty close to his best Scotland team for today’s match. It comes first in the autumn series and it is not only essential that we start with a victory, but take the opportunity to allow the team to gel. No doubt the side would be a bit different if everyone was fit, but this of course is seldom the case. As it is, Euan Murray will miss the South Africa game next Sunday, but otherwise, assuming things go well today, perhaps only the lock pairing will be changed for that match, with Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray coming in.
One supposes that Scotland may play fairly conservatively too, for at least the first quarter of the game, seeking to establish forward supremacy, and employing David Denton, Alasdair Strokosch and Tim Swinson as powerful ball-carriers driving deep into the Japanese defence.
Still, one hopes that subsequently we will look to run the ball. That indeed would seem to be the intention: Ruaridh Jackson has been picked at 10 not only because he has been in excellent form but because he has the ability to create opportunities for the players outside him. Given Matt Scott’s rapid development, which makes him the most exciting number 12 we have had for some time, the prospect of seeing him and Jackson playing together is attractive. Of course Jackson’s ability to make things sparkle depends on the provision of quick ball from the set-piece and the breakdown, something he has been denied in most of his international appearances. One can’t say too often that the ability of the backs to shine depends on the quality of ball with which they are provided.
Last week’s Twickenham match was sadly lacking in quality. Australia, having got into what should have been a winning position, rather threw it away as teams quite often do when they have lost the habit of winning games. They certainly had reason to feel aggrieved. The touch judge’s failure to see that the England full-back Matt Brown had a foot in touch didn’t directly cost Australia a try, because in the sequence of play that followed they missed tackles and had a kick charged down. Nevertheless what should have been an Australian line-out five metres or so from the England line was suddenly transformed into a line-out at the other end of the field. As for England’s second try, Dylan Hartley was very fortunate to get away with his cynical block of the Australian hooker, which ensured that there was a gaping hole in the Wallaby defence for Owen Farrell to gallop through. It was surprising that the try was allowed to stand.
Disappointingly the referee, George Clancy, either hadn’t been informed of the IRB’s new determination that the ball should be put into the scrum straight, or had simply decided to ignore it. I doubt if there was a straight feed in the whole match. Ignoring this requirement makes nonsense of the revised scrum laws.
For many the main interest of today’s round of internationals will be to see if Wales can at last improve on their dismal record of failure against the big three from the southern hemisphere. The Welsh have the best Six Nations record over the last ten years but have regularly lost, not only to New Zealand, but also to South Africa and Australia. It’s hard to understand why, especially since both England and Scotland, who regularly lose to Wales, have beaten the Springboks and the Wallabies. Perhaps the experience of supplying two-thirds of the Lions XV that won in the summer will rid the Welsh of the inferiority complex they seem to suffer from when they come up against southern-hemisphere opposition.