THE excitement of a new season, new players and a new squad mix with which to launch Scotland into the Autumn Tests is enhanced by the rarity this weekend of Japan being the first visitors to Murrayfield.
In recent times Scotland have kicked off most autumn series against New Zealand which, for all the hype and hope, tends towards the question of ‘what can we do in the second and third games?’ When Fiji were first up in 2009, Scotland eased past the Islanders and then hung on magnificently to pip Australia 9-8, only to become complacent and slip up against Argentina, but there can be little doubt that that is the better sequence for Scotland, a nation that has developed a reputation as slow starters.
The World Cup is some time away, but this game will be instructive as in two years’ time Japan will loom alongside Samoa, South Africa and probably the USA as Scotland’s RWC 2015 opponents. So, by the time Scott Johnson/Vern Cotter’s squad return from next year’s summer tour they will have faced all four.
Alastair Kellock has been around longer than most in the home squad, and while he has never been one to take a Scotland jersey for granted the arrival of Tim Swinson, Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist and Keiran Low on the scene has only added to his desire to remain in the picture. As he prepares to win his 56th Test, Scotland’s chief supplier of ball is wary of the influence of former England skipper Steve Borthwick in the Japan coaching ranks.
“We’ve done our research on them and I can assure you we’re not underestimating anything,” he said. “Defensively Japan are very good, and they work very hard. Steve has had an influence at the lineout and they put the New Zealand scrum under pressure. They are very good from a structured attack and it’s up to us to disrupt the breakdown. They are a good team and they are getting better and better.”
It is a timely test. In 2010, a Japan XV of mainly youngsters earmarked for the 2015 and 2019 World Cup campaigns lost 24-5 to a Scotland XV in an almost sevens runaround, while the last Test match was in 2004, but that was a farce. The leading Japanese players are employed by world-renowned corporations such as Toshiba, Yamaha, Panasonic, Sanyo, Ricoh and Suntory or attached to universities that led the development of rugby from the start of the 20th century.
As the autumn game fell midway through their season neither the dominant companies nor the universities agreed to release players, so what was virtually a third-string team with a scattering of veterans pitched up and lost by a record 100-8 scoreline.
For a true indication of Japan’s strength in the past, Scotland supporters will recall a frenetic and nervy World Cup meeting in 2003. There was an element of farce injected into that meeting too as Scotland had trained inside Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens greenhouses in an effort to replicate the humidity of Townsville on the north-east coast of Australia in readiness for meeting Japan.
But when the time came both sides ran out into a still autumnal evening where locals were pulling on jumpers. The Japanese low tackling was an issue, however, with Scotland players complaining afterwards of struggling to uncover any rhythm to their play because, contrary to the then penchant for high rugby league-style tackling, the Japanese cut them low before they could off-load.
Chris Paterson set the Scots off and running in Townsville with a try after just four minutes and Stuart Grimes finished off another first quarter score, but Japan stuck at it and a try by winger Hirotoki Onozawa left the Scots with a slender 15-11 lead going into the last quarter. Late scores by Paterson, Simon Taylor and Simon Danielli ensured a comfortable Scotland win in the end, but anyone who watched that game – a decade ago – will remember it with a chill up the spine.
Japan are in a very different place now. Coached by Eddie Jones, the master Australian tactician, they have steadily built up their knowledge of rugby around the world. Studying the game in a methodical manner, they embarked on a programme of education after the 1995 World Cup by first targeting players in the world’s No 1 nation, New Zealand, and paying several times what they earned at home to play and coach in Japan.
They then sought out Australian expertise, in an effort specifically to improve running and handling skills, and have since widened their learning by attracting South African players and even Scots, in the shape of Scott MacLeod, who I am told was signed by Kobe because they wanted to understand the mind of Borders rugby players.
Whether they achieved that with the Teri lock who knows, but they continue to offer the biggest salaries – Springbok Jaques Fourie is said to be earning over £100,000 per match – in the drive to make Japanese rugby competitive on the world stage.
Jones suffered a stroke three weeks ago, which was a huge shock to the Japanese squad, but he is said to be recovering well and remains in regular dialogue with his Australian assistant Scott Wisemantel.
The former union and league player, who has coached the New South Wales Waratahs and Wallabies, said: “Of course we were all worried about Eddie, but now that we know he is making a good recovery, we need to work out how to move forward. I am not trying to be Eddie Jones, but Eddie has put a fantastic system in place and I am coaching within that system.”
Wisemantel has deep and wide experience of rugby at a high level, which underlines that Japan now have a level organisation that was not there ten years ago. They have a pack that is developing into a strong, physical unit in the scrum and lineout, one that knows how to play the game and makes more right decisions than wrong.
While the 5ft 5in Highlanders scrum-half Fumiaka Tanaka is one visiting player many fans will be aware of and Samoan Male Sa’u and veteran Kangaroos cap Craig Wing pack a punch at centre, a big danger in the pack is flanker Michael Broadhurst from Poverty Bay in New Zealand who scored in each Test against Wales and is as formidable a ball-carrier as he is a defender.
They have a back line with a defensive system it lacked in 2003, on top of the natural urgency, sheer pace – wings Toshiaki Hirose, the skipper, and Kenki Fukuoka need close watching – and commitment that Japanese players are known for, and in full-back Ayumu Goromaru they have a potent kicker, who can turn defence into attack in an instant.
The Scots need to get the basics right from the start, the scrum, lineout, kicking game and defence, sticking to the structures developed by Matt Taylor over the past year. However, to dominate this game Scotland also have to meet fire with fire and play at a tempo that will cause Japan problems.
Greig Laidlaw knows where the balance lies, but other key attackers like Ruaridh Jackson and Nick de Luca appear to be grasping the fact that the team can perform well and win without them having to be star men.
This will be no turgid game of chess, but it may not be won early either. The Brave Blossoms lost heavily to New Zealand in the end last week, but they came at them from the start, causing the All Blacks some pain with an impressive scrum and forcing them to work hard to break them down. The Scots are likley to require the balance of cool heads and high-tempo ambition.
Kellock is one who is unconcerned with the gap of six places between the sides in the world rankings.
“I don’t look at where a team is sitting in the rankings,” he said. “This is all about how we perform. We should be aiming for the same high standards we always do. We have done some great analysis on Japan and we know where they are strong, but it’s about concentrating on our own performance and that shouldn’t change if we’re playing Japan or New Zealand.”
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