SIX tries scored and a potential banana skin stepped over, Scotland can now look ahead to South Africa with confidence despite a healthy reminder of their fallibility supplied by the ever-improving Japanese.
Scotland 42-17 Japan
Scorers: Scotland: Tries - Seymour 2, Laidlaw, Dickinson, Weir, Lamont; Pens - Laidlaw 2; Cons - Laidlaw 2, Weir. Japan: Tries - Fukuoka 2; Pen - Goromaru, Cons - Goromaru 2.
Scotland rarely beat sides comfortably and so there will have been few surprised by the way the team allowed Japan to come back at them in a scintillating 15 minutes of rugby after the interval that delighted the neutral, after a highlight-starved first half. That Scotland finished strongly, however, clinically exploiting Japanese errors and their loss of inspirational No 8 Ryu Koliniasi Holani for ten minutes, to score three tries in the final quarter, allowed smiles to appear on Scottish faces at full-time.
Sean Lamont finished it off with his 12th try marking the occasion of his 80th Test cap, but he acknowledged that there was still some improvement required over the next week.
“What was really positive was that we were relentless,” he said. “When they scored we scored straight back, so I feel there are a lot of positives from the game, but also a lot to work on.
“We know that we have to be more physical against South Africa. We have got to cut out the errors and stop giving away soft tries. Against bigger and better teams we may not be able to get tries back if we give them away so it will cost us.” In terms of the positives, though the first half was not a thriller for the 32,000 spectators inside Murrayfield delighted by the dispersing rain at kick-off, it provided solid foundations with which to launch the autumn.
A dominant scrum, reliable lineout, superb Greig Laidlaw grubber and fine Ruaridh Jackson kick from 22 to 22 that turned defence into attack were signs of a team in control.
It also brought a 6-0 lead after 22 minutes from two penalties by Greig Laidlaw, the fly-half falling just short with a long-range third.
And when Japan put together some phases to show how, under Australian coaches Eddie Jones and Scott Wisemantel, they have improved their structure and technical skills, Tim Swinson set his stall out early with a thundering tackle that stopped the dangerous Japanese back, Craig Wing. Supported by Samoan Male Sau in a great battle with Matt Scott and Nick de Luca, the former Kangaroos rugby league cap spearheaded Japan’s attacking play, and robbed Scotland of Ryan Grant when the prop sustained a head knock trying to stop him.
But throughout the first half there was a sense that Scotland were within touching distance of tries. Sean Maitland mesmerised the Japan defence with a pacy, mazy run into the 22, but was caught by scrambling defence, and then a good, multi-phase attack sprung Tommy Seymour on the right wing, for the Glasgow Warrior to mark his Murrayfield debut with a first try after 31 minutes.
The hosts could have had another when De Luca exploded through a gap, and Sean Lamont finished off the “try” from the next phase, but the new television match official rules allowing all the lead-up play to be studied led Irish TMO Marshall Kilgore to spot Swinson helping to create the gap for De Luca by holding back a defender.
So, three good chances and one taken for an 11-3 half-time lead, while not spectacular was a solid opening. But, in a frenetic start to the second half those foundations were rocked by two well-taken tries by Japan wing Kenki Fukuoka and, though replied to by scores from Laidlaw – taking him past the 200-point mark for Scotland – and Seymour, it was a concern that the Scots needed a wake-up call.
“We always knew it was going to be a tough game because they were already one game ahead of us by playing New Zealand last week,” said Jackson, “so we expected it would be rough out there.
“We were maybe a bit flat when they came out at the start of the second half and they really came out and took it to us. I’ll put my hand up for the first one [Japan try]. I shot out the line to try to shut it down and picked the wrong man.
“They just executed two turnover tries, caught us on the back foot and finished well. They have some electric backs, but we do need to learn from that and make sure that we’re not having to react, but go out and play that way from the start.”
That is the key lesson from this encounter for Scotland, because when they did respond they scored good tries that eventually put them out of sight. Laidlaw’s show and go, reminiscent of his uncle Roy, and de Luca’s step and Jackson’s slick wide pass to put Seymour into the right-hand corner started it.
“I told him I owed him [Seymour] one after the summer tour,” said the fly-half. “In the South Africa game I threw one over his head when I should have got him off the mark then.
“I’m really happy that he got two tries because he has been in good form and he fully deserves them.”
A fine Kelly Brown break might have sparked another, but Japan No 8 Holani held the ball into the ruck and was duly shown the yellow card. Swinson then almost followed, but was superbly held up over the line by Kiwi-born Hendrik Tui, and though another scrum free-kick and then badly butchered attack relieved pressure on Japan it was fleeting as a fly hack upfield by the visitors gave Scotland’s attack the depth they needed to counter and finish, Scott slicing them open with two great runs and Alasdair Dickinson finishing sublime off-loading with a sprint between the uprights.
Japan’s assistant coach Scott Wisemantel felt his side’s naivety in trying to maintain a high-tempo, open approach when a man down played into Scotland’s hands, and the final 15 minutes and flood of replacements, in an energy-sapping game, also benefited the more experienced hosts.
Duncan Weir was happy though, as within three minutes of replacing Jackson he got on the end of a Maitland pass to dive over for his first Scotland try, a score which further underlined Scotland’s potential when they play with pace and off-load with precision.
And there was time for another, Henry Pyrgos delivering a neat chip into the dead-ball area and Lamont getting his hands to it after Atsushi Hiwasa fumbled after moments earlier being denied by Ayumu Goromaru in a tackle off the ball, for which the otherwise impressive full-back was yellow-carded.
Japan deserved plaudits for their attacking ambition, improving set-piece and breakdown work, which exposed Scottish failings, but the Scots know that the Springboks will bring something better, in style and substance.
Jackson added: “There were some real positives out there, a real good marker for us, but there are things to work on.
“We want to put in a good performance for the crowd against South Africa and make the nation proud, and to do that we know that it is going to take a huge effort. But we were bitterly disappointed after the June Test and can use that for motivation, and we’ll be at home and we want to win all our games at home.
“If we repeat the standards of the first 60 minutes over there [in South Africa] and cause them problems then I think we could cause an upset next weekend.”
Scotland: S Maitland; T Seymour, N de Luca, M Scott, S Lamont; R Jackson, G Laidlaw; R Grant, R Ford, E Murray, T Swinson, A Kellock, D Denton, K Brown (capt), A Strokosch. Subs: A Dickinson for Grant 28mins, R Gray for Kellock 57, D Weir for Jackson 65, J Barclay for Strokosch, P MacArthur for Ford, both 69, G Cross for Murray, H Pyrgos for Laidlaw, both 74, D Taylor for Maitland 77.
Japan: A Goromaru; T Hirose (capt), M Sau, C Wing, K Fukuoka; K Ono, F Tanaka; M Mikami, S Horie, K Hatakeyama, S Makabe, L Thompson, H Tui, M Broadhurst, R K Holani.
Subs: H Yamashita for Hatakeyama 33mins, A Hiwasi for Tanaka 60, H Ono for Thompson 65, T Kikutani for Holani, Y Aoki for Hokie, both 69, Y Tamuta for Wing, Y Fujita for Sau, both 76, Yamashita for Hatakeyama 76.
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