Are Nel, Hardie and Strauss final pieces in puzzle?

The impressive John Hardie offloads the ball in the build'up to Scotland's first try against Japan. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The impressive John Hardie offloads the ball in the build'up to Scotland's first try against Japan. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SCOTLAND’S win over Japan must be one of our most composed and professional starts to a World Cup, and it was especially impressive after the unique circumstances leading up to it. The camp were making all the right noises in amongst all the hoop-la surrounding Japan’s win over South Africa, and from the outside the players seemed calm enough in the build-up to the game.

But there is no way that sitting in the team room watching that astonishing victory there wouldn’t have been a few players experiencing some twinges of doubt, down in the dark corners of the rugby player’s brain which no sports psychologist can reach.

Eddie Jones did his best to fuel those doubts with his elaborate mind-games (which all seemed slightly infra dig from such a great coach), while the Scots, unfailingly polite, poured praise on the Japanese and got on with their preparations. At Kingsholm, Scotland certainly didn’t look as if his jibes had got to them. We played a composed and controlled game in the first half, perhaps overly conservative at times, but our play had the mark of a well-drilled, confident side easing their way into the tournament. In the stands, the first real moment of concern, horror even, came after 13 minutes when we realised that fate had dealt us not only an Irish referee but an Irish touch judge. Our worst fears seemed to be confirmed as John Lacey overruled George Clancy, who had judged that the ball had gone dead from a Japanese penalty kick to touch. Neither seemed to think it was worth bothering the TMO for, possibly keeping him fresh for later investigations into suspected jersey pulling or unnecessary roughness by the Scots, and the Japanese duly scored from another Steve Borthwick inspired shift drive.

In fairness, it was the only decision by Lacey that we could have any issue with, and he helped to produce one of the less stop-start matches of the tournament so far. But this minor intervention was a reminder that nothing comes easy when you play for Scotland. There was further evidence of this in the TV and press coverage of the match, where the iniquity of Japan being made to play two matches in five days by the big bad rugby establishment became the main topic of conversation. The last thing the Scottish boys need is a pat on the head from John Inverdale, but everyone likes a bit of recognition for a job well done. However, after a couple of generations of underachievement this Scotland team, the best we have had in many years, seems well aware that the road back to respectability is a long one.

For all the talk of fatigue, this match could have been very different in the first half but for a couple of key moments. Firstly, it was vital that Scotland broke up Japan’s second attempt at a mob-handed driving lineout, as thankfully they barely kicked for the corner again. Like a dominant scrum, a dominant driving lineout is a huge psychological weapon. Then, with two minutes to go in the half, we managed to hold Japan up over our line, and via a couple of penalties worked our way down the pitch and almost scored in the corner through Tommy Seymour. That passage was almost the first time Scotland had gone through multiple phases, and rather than being deflated at missing out on the 14-point swing, it confirmed to the team that the gameplan – making the extra pass in the forwards, offloading in midfield when it’s on, then using our strike runners out wide – would eventually break down Japan’s defence.

That is ultimately what the victory came down to; Scotland had more imagination in attack and better broken field runners. Japan’s phase place often amounted to sending up a single runner off nine with two or three supporters within touching distance to clear the ruck. Effective up to a point, but predictable, and when they lost Amanaki Mafi they lost their one forward with a point of difference. Still, there was a shaky period at the end of the first half, when Japan were getting ultra quick ball and finding little gaps next to the ruck. Scotland like to set their ruck defence quite wide and hit in, but the success of that system is reliant on slowing down the opposition ball. Such was the quality of Japan’s clear-outs that there was no way of getting hands on, so Scotland duly adjusted and brought the first three defenders tighter and their hits immediately became more dominant.

You get the feeling that players like WP Nel, John Hardie and Josh Strauss may be the final pieces in the puzzle for this Scotland team. You can start to see a reassuring inevitability to important aspects of our game – the set-piece, exits from our own 22, our structure in general play – which the best sides all have. This is not to say that we are becoming predictable, but rather that there is a strong, reliable framework being put into place onto which the likes of Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg can add their individual brilliance. So with this template in place, I imagine we will see a very similar performance tomorrow from Scotland. Sensible and measured when they have to be, but ready to speculate once they have built up a bit of lead. The USA are no chumps, but there is no way we are about to see another Pool B upset.