EDDIE Jones didn’t, I think, offer the four-day turn-round as an excuse for what was eventually a heavy defeat. Just as well – he would have looked a fool if he had done so after his talk about Scotland being a side that couldn’t score second-half points and his assertion that his Japanese team were fitter than the Scots and would outlast them. Mouthy coaches always give hostages to fortune.
For much of the game Japan played well. Actually they played as Scotland have often done, before eventually losing by a wide margin. That’s to say, they had lots of possession, spent long periods in the opposition 22, but only once found a way to score. Perhaps they suffered as Scotland did against Wales this spring from “white line fever”.
In contrast, Scotland were composed. This was rope-a-dope rugby: absorb the pressure and then strike hard. Perhaps Vern Cotter had had them watching a video of the Ali-Foreman fight? From the moment the excellent John Hardie scored the first try the result was assured – even though we made a dreadful mess of the restart. Some of the commentators on our website have said that Hardie silenced his detractors. I don’t think he had detractors in the sense that people questioned his ability. It was the propriety of his selection that was in doubt. Well, there will be no more of that, just as there wasn’t when John and Martin Leslie who also arrived by, as it were, parachute immediately proved their worth and commitment.
Hardie’s tackling was terrific, likewise Dave Denton’s and Jonny Gray’s. Jonny also played an important part in Hardie’s try. By coming away from the ruck and positioning himself between Laidlaw and Hardie, he caused the defence to hesitate for a moment, and so created space for Hardie to go over from Laidlaw’s miss-pass; clever rugby. The forwards were in general tremendous, happily astute in judgment of when to commit to the breakdown and when to stand off. The poor bloody infantry did their job splendidly. We’ve known them do that before, only for the cavalry to fail to deliver. Not this time. They all carried a threat and delivered on it, refusing to be worried by the occasional mistake such as Stuart Hogg’s egregious dropping of a straightforward catch or the lack of concentration which saw Matt Scott rush out of the line to concede an offside penalty and once kick a ball carried into the 22 out on the full. Yet Scott had his best game since before his shoulder injuries, and his deft off-load to make Mark Bennett’s second try possible was a beauty. As for Bennett, he reminds me more and more of the great Jim Renwick. Shakespeare has a character called Autolycus, a thief who describes himself as “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”. Tommy Seymour is a rugby Autolycus, a snapper-up of opposition passes, an interceptor in the Bryan Habana class.
Meanwhile, the half-back partner-ship of Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell is gelling beautifully. Laidlaw ran the game with cool deliberation, and Russell, like his mentor Gregor Townsend, is a fly-half who makes things happen. In 1999 Townsend was the best 10 in the northern hemisphere. Russell is on the way to being that now.
Still successful teams are built on a strong defence, and the defence was admirable with more than 190 tackles made. One might say the defensive task was made a bit easier by the repetitive nature of the Japanese attack. They kept the ball in hand, doing the same thing in the hope that it would eventually bring them a try. So they asked the same question time and again, and got the same answer, because didn’t vary things by putting the ball behind or through the Scottish defensive line. Nevertheless, our defence coach Matt Taylor has every reason to feel satisfied.
This Scotland side is developing a sense of purpose.
It is becoming clear that Vern Cotter knows how he wants them to play and that his men are responding. There’s a cohesion that hasn’t been evident for a long time.
One doesn’t want to make too much of a win against Japan, but the same signs were evident in at least the last two warm-up matches against Italy and France.
Meanwhile, today sees the first really big crunch match of the World Cup – England v Wales at Twickenham – and a good many in England fear that the changes to their team’s back division indicate that there is no such clarity in the minds of Stuart Lancaster and his assistant coaches. The fear may be unfounded. It’s just possible that they always intended to have Owen Farrell rather than George Ford at fly-half for the Wales game. It’s possible, too, that only the injury to Jonathan Joseph prompted the change. But it doesn’t look like it. It looks as if England are not going to play in the style they have been developing. We shall see. At any rate the suggestion of uncertainty will surely give Wales the boost that the boyos need after the wretched run of injuries that they have suffered. Nevertheless, it’s not a match I would bet on even if I was still a betting man.