Allan Massie: Japan on a high but Scotland have cause for optimism

Journalists have often previewed matches while aware that vile weather may lead to postponements. Today is different, for the pool match between Scotland and Japan is threatened with cancellation, not postponement, the latter being, according to Alan Gilpin, World Rugby’s tournament director, “unfeasible on logistic and safety grounds”.

George Horne and Jamie Ritchie will hope they will be celebrating another Scotland win. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
George Horne and Jamie Ritchie will hope they will be celebrating another Scotland win. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Still, we can deal with that if it happens, and it’s best to assume that the match will go ahead. The position is that we have to win and gain four more points than them from the victory to go through to the quarter-final. (It is a little more murky if Samoa beat Ireland in Fukuoka today.)

We are where we are because we lost badly to Ireland and Japan beat Ireland. Even so, it was always quite likely that this is where we would be in the last pool match. The only difference is that if Japan had lost to Ireland, the question of bonus points would have been irrelevant.

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Estimating chances of winning any match by comparing the two teams’ earlier results in a tournament is usually futile. Now, for good reasons, Japan are on a high, but Scotland have more reason to feel confident than seemed likely after the Ireland game.

Japan have been playing fast, imaginative and well-organised rugby. They will be under the pressure of high expectation, but there’s no reason to suppose they will be unnerved by this. Expectation has been rising in the Scottish camp too. Both sides’ preparation may have been disrupted by the uncertainty, but I would expect both to be mentally ready. So what do we have to do to win?

Five things stand out, none of them unusual.

First, a good start, something often recently managed by Scotland, is imperative – imperative, but not enough. Ireland made a good start against Japan and lost. It will, however, be hard to win if we get more than a few points behind and confidence surges through the Japan team.

Second, we must not concede penalties in our own half. Japan kept ahead of Samoa because their stand-off was given chances to kick penalty goals and took them.

Third, the scrum and lineout must be secure, and we should make good and regular use of driving mauls, both to make ground and tie in Japanese defenders.

Fourth, we must protect the ball and retain possession. Careless passes in midfield invite interceptions and counter-attacks.Then, while we will surely kick quite a lot for territory and also to vary our attack, we must be aware that loose kicks will be punished. Japan are fast and inventive in counter-attack. Indeed, like the All Blacks, they are more dangerous when gifted possession than when they have won it at a set-piece.

Fifth, awareness is all-important when playing a quick and inventive team like Japan. Unlike almost everybody , they go for a quick heel from the set-scrum. So few teams do this that defending flankers are often slower to break nowadays than flankers were when the quick heel was the norm.So Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury must be alert.

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The Ireland-Japan match will have been analysed, with as much attention being paid to what Ireland did wrong as to what Ireland did right. My impression is that Ireland thought they were coasting and then didn’t know what to do when they found they weren’t. As for the Japan-Samoa game, that was won as much by superior fitness – and perhaps greater will to win – as by anything else. Though the final margin of victory was wide, Samoa were still in with a chance of winning at the 70th minute. Scotland are certainly fitter than Samoa.

Given the importance of replacements, it has often been remarked in Six Nations matches that, while other teams, notably England and Ireland, have forwards on the bench who are as good as those who start, Scotland don’t. This doesn’t look the case here. Stuart McInally, usually the first choice hooker will replace Fraser Brown around the 50-minute mark and take over the captaincy when George Horne comes on for Greig Laidlaw, while Gordon Reid is a very solid scrummager and the youngsters, Zander Fagerson and Scott Cummings are two of the most direct and hard-running carriers we have.

Then, if the game opens up in the last half-hour or 20 minutes, George Horne’s remarkable speed and judgment in support of anyone who makes even a half-break, or to be always on hand for a final pass, may be just what we need.

Japan started the tournament nervously against Russia; we started it badly against Ireland. Both teams have improved since. I suspect – not merely hope – that the two Samoan games offer a better indication of what we may expect than the two Irish ones.

It’s sad that there’s this uncertainty before the match; there will be enough uncertainty when – if – it starts, uncertainty and jangled nerves. But, believing that most matches are won by the side whose forwards get on top and take control, I think we’ll win. (Despite long experience, I always incline to optimism when Scotland take the field.) Finally, let us hope that, by Sunday afternoon, we are talking about the play, not the refereeing.