Tom English: Tests await Scotland’s leaky defence

Scotland's Alasdair Dickinson scores his country's fourth try against Japan at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scotland's Alasdair Dickinson scores his country's fourth try against Japan at Murrayfield. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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When Scott Johnson started speaking about his over-riding impression of what happened in this compelling Test, a slight look of confusion took hold of the Scotland coach.

What do you make of a six-try victory that saw his team commit so many self-inflicted wounds for much of the first hour? What to make of a scrum that lurches from dominant to disastrous in the blink of an eye? What to make of his team that for too long were engaged in a crazy rhythm of conceding-scoring-conceding-scoring, all the while giving succour to some flyers and bruisers in this burgeoning Japanese team?

Scotland rallied and won well, but the bigger picture is that they scored half of their tries while Japan were down to 14 men. Sure, they were clinical. Some of the offloading going on out there was pretty and effective. We have to look at this through the prism of next Sunday and the following Saturday, though. South Africa and Australia won’t be as naïve as Japan were in the last quarter.

Japan made it easier for Scotland, not just by losing a man on two occasions but by losing tempo and control.

Their stand-in coach, Scott Wisemantel, spoke of the need for his team to become tactically savvy. “The aim of this tour is to grow up,” he said. Japan are improving. They’ve got tough forwards and devastating runners, but they haven’t got nous and maturity. They have two years to find it before the World Cup and their progress will be worth watching.

“I’m trying to see the bright side of a negative,” said Johnson. “Japan scored and then we scored one right back and I’m wondering why there has to be the catalyst of them scoring a try before we scored. I’m caught 50-50 between the positive and the negative. It depends on how good my night is how I’ll look at it in the morning.”

That was a moment of humour, but most of all it was relief. The positives were obvious. Tim Swinson, in particular. He was belligerent in the second row and carried and tackled like a demon. He got man of the match and there was justice in that. But Kenki Fukuoka, the speedster on the left wing who scored two wonderful tries, had a case. He wasn’t the only Japanese player in the mix either.

Early in the second half, Scotland had what you might call a Tonga moment, a punch in the gut the like of which saw them fall to the floor this time last year at Pittodrie and never get back up again. You’ll remember Pittodrie. You might have tried to forget, but it’s hard to erase something quite so awful as that pitiful capitulation 12 months ago.

Fifty-two minutes had been played when Japan suddenly attacked a Scottish scrum and left it in a heap in their slipstream. Scotland had already conceded a free-kick at a scrum earlier on, an offence that was exploited sensationally by Japan with an epic attack and score in the corner.

This other ruinous Scottish scrum saw the visitors come scorching downfield, the splendid Ayumu Goromaru exploiting a gap and motoring clear. Goromaru did the damage but Fukuoka applied the finish. A fast, intelligent and clinical wing, Fukuoka. It was his second score of the day and one, when converted, that left Japan a single point behind at 18-17.

“Was there concern?” asked Johnson, rhetorically. “There’s always concern. There’s mostly negative people in the coaches’ box and I’m the only one who isn’t. But I wasn’t real good at that stage.”

You waited for Scotland’s reaction. Waited for their forwards to get on top of an attritional Japanese back-row led by the abrasive Ryu Koliniasi Holani. Waited for the silencing of Japan’s lethal runners and the emergence of Scotland’s own go-to men. Fall or rise? Tonga or something better? The latter, mercifully.

Japan didn’t get another look. Not a point or a passage of play that allowed them to build on the momentum they had gained early in that second half. That was partly their own fault in ceding possession and numbers to Scotland, but there was character and explosiveness and precision in a lot of what Scotland did in that last period - the positive that conflicted with the negative in the mind of the coach.

“It was a good Test,” he said. “I said beforehand that Japan are a formidable side and that they are a really good rugby nation. And it was a reasonable spectacle.

“The scrums? Well, the fact that it cost us two tries, I wonder about that. They were really well-finished tries, but they were soft. And we had some defensive issues, put it that way. We made some incorrect defensive decisions. We need to make it harder for teams to score against us. Some basic structural errors cost us.”

It was a win and it’s some kind of platform against the Springboks. Scotland scored six tries and it could have been more.

You could make a neat pile of positives but then you think about the battle to come with the South Africans and you start to focus on the substantial holes in that Scottish defence, the sight of Japan’s backs piling through the holes and finishing with ease.

That’s what Johnson will be looking at in the days to come. And you can be certain that the Springboks will be doing the same.

There is much to study and much to correct before the superpower arrives later in the week.