JAPAN may not yet be ready to break into the top ten in the rankings, but they are getting closer. Their passing on Saturday was beautifully quick and assured, and their backs ran better lines than most teams ranked above them usually manage.
So, although they were beaten up front, they provided Scotland with a much sterner defensive test than many will have expected. One has to say that the test wasn’t passed very convincingly.
There were holes in midfield, and, though Tommy Seymour took his two tries well, he was caught out of position just as he had been against Italy in the summer, and might fairly be held accountable for both the Japanese tries. The defence will have to be more secure if we are to have a chance of beating South Africa. Seymour should keep his place, but he will find Bryan Habana an even tougher proposition than Kenki Fukuoka. Habana looked in ominously good form in Cardiff.
Still, although Scott Johnson’s first response was, prudently, to give the performance a 50-50 rating, those of us who have followed Scotland for much longer than our present national coach has, may well be more generous. There was a welcome willingness to run the ball, and some of our attacking play sparkled. Ruaridh Jackson threw out a couple of wild passes early on, but settled into a very good game. His long loop pass to put Seymour in for his second try, and the take-and-give, which enabled Alasdair Dickinson to romp in under the posts, were of the highest class.
Matt Scott confirmed that he is now good enough to threaten any defence and it will be sad if his injured hand keeps him out of the South African game. It was equally sad that Sean Lamont’s try from Nick De Luca’s dazzling break was ruled out because of a piece of obstruction which may, or may not, have made it possible. Nobody should expect that different referees on the field or in front of a TV screen will display consistency. Nevertheless it seemed to me that this obstruction was less blatant, and perhaps less deliberate, than Dylan Hartley’s obstruction of Stephen Moore at Twickenham the previous week which created a gap for Owen Farrell to gallop through.
The fact is that in rugby, as with the DRS in cricket, reference to the television match official is as likely to provoke argument as it is to settle it. Moreover, the question of how far back in any sequence leading up to a try you should go is moot: if two phases, then why not five or six and so on; a voyage into absurdity.
That said, De Luca’s break and general performance should have silenced all but his most severe critics – for the time being anyway. The same may be said of Sean Lamont, whose critic I confess to having been; he seems to get better and better. The deft pass he gave to Sean Maitland in the run-up to Duncan Weir’s try was delicious, and his alert chasing of Henry Pyrgos’s little chip gave him the try he had richly deserved. Maitland, himself, was dangerous whenever he had the ball in his hands and is quite simply a high-class player.
In short, with Greig Laidlaw running the show adroitly, the back division looks settled for the moment, assuming Scott is fit. It’s different with the forwards, not because any played badly on Saturday, but because there are so many possible blends at lock and in the back row.
Given the strength of the Springbok set scrum, and the unavailability of Euan Murray, can you leave out Jim Hamilton? If you don’t, can you leave out Tim Swinson who was terrific against Japan and whose crushing tackle of the former Australian rugby league centre Craig Wing will live in the memory? Or Richie Gray, the only Scot who got on the field for the Lions in a Test this summer? As for the back row, many would like to see a genuine seven picked, but who do you jettison? The captain, Kelly Brown, who almost never makes a wrong decision, or Alasdair Strokosch who carries the ball so well? Or would you move Brown to 8 in place of David Denton who was outstanding on Saturday and must have run Swinson close for that tiresome Man of the Match award? Perhaps, in the end, it is the medics who will solve these problems.
Beating Japan isn’t everything. Some may say it isn’t much, and certainly it won’t have attracted much notice south of the Border. Nevertheless it’s a lot better than losing to them – or to Tonga as we did 12 months ago – and gives the Autumn series a satisfactory start.
South Africa will pose many more questions, and will undoubtedly start as hot favourites, all the more so because Wales seldom came within a sniff of a try against them. That said, the early loss of Jonathan Davies through injury had an influence on the match. We should assume that South Africa will score a try or two and, consequently, to beat them you have to score tries yourself. This means that a bit of audacity is most certainly needed…