Can you imagine how Captain Scott felt when the British explorer arrived at the South Pole only to be greeted by the sight of a Norwegian flag? It was planted by Roald Amundsen who did everything that Scott did, only better.
In similar fashion Gregor Townsend must have watched Japan’s brilliant victory over Ireland yesterday morning and wept tears of frustration. Jamie Joseph’s Brave Blossoms play “the fastest rugby on earth” only they do it very much better than the self-proclaimed masters. The fact that Irish stand-off Joey Carbery hoofed the ball into touch after the 80, more concerned about losing the bonus than winning the match, tells you everything you need to know about the balance of play.
Japan “Leinstered” Ireland yesterday, which was another nice little irony. The host side held on to the ball for long periods. They were content to go backwards, if needs be, to hold on to possession. When they did see a half gap their ball carriers ran with a conviction and footwork that Scotland never came close to matching.
Japan made most of their forward yards, and scored their only try, in the wide channels but, unlike Scotland, they mixed things up sufficiently to ensure that Ireland were left guessing the point and angle of the next attack. Line speed was lost.
Most importantly, Japan had patience, Zen-like patience, oodles of it, a surfeit of the stuff – almost as if they had stocked up on Scotland’s unused consignment.
First up Scotland play Samoa tomorrow and will use it as a dry run for the big game against Japan. The starters are almost certainly the XV that Townsend wants to play against Japan with his subbies playing against Russia four days before the big one. I would have preferred the athleticism of lock Scott Cummings ahead of Grant Gilchrist and Gordon Reid for Allan Dell.
Reid is coming to the end of his Test career and he always looks like he plays with a passion and conviction that were notably absent from his peers last Sunday. His presence in the starting XV would be a timely reminder about what it should mean to represent Scotland on the biggest stage of all.
Scotland will beat Samoa provided they play somewhere close to their potential although the islanders remain a threat even in the absence of the banned Cardiff Blues centre Rey Lee-Lo who caused so many problems for Scotland at the World Cup four years ago in Newcastle.
Townsend’s teams have “no-showed” all too often but every time it has happened they have bounced back. After that woeful loss to Wales in Townsend’s first ever Six Nations match his team beat France at Murrayfield. Following defeat by the USA Eagles last summer, Scotland scored six tries against Argentina in South America and when they were squashed in Nice just last month, they beat Les Bleus in the return match one week later. When their backs are to the wall you expect the Scots to unleash their inner Mel Gibson.
In addition to the obvious win now needed, Scotland have to show that they have learned the lessons from Japan’s victory yesterday because their predictable wide/wide game just gives Samoan’s tacklers an easy target. The inclusion of Magnus Bradbury in the back row means Scotland finally boast a capable ball carrier – not that he can do it all himself. All of Scotland’s ball carriers must run with conviction and keep possession once they have it. They need to dominate territory, which will depend upon Russell/Laidlaw/Hogg’s kicking game being on the money. Remember what happened when Scotland kicked to the corner (seven times) against Tonga in Aberdeen back in 2012? They must take the three when the opportunity arises. Always.
The Scottish runners need to stress the Samoan defence in a way that they failed to manage against Ireland. Chris Farrell made huge inroads yesterday running at Japan’s small midfield so expect Sam Johnson and Chis Harris to run some hard, straight lines tomorrow. And the Scots need to do all the above with at least some of the above with the accuracy and patience shown by Japan yesterday.
Japan’s victory may have made qualifying for the quarter-finals a little trickier. Scotland will need at least two bonus points against Samoa and Russia and then deny Japan any extras when beating them in the final game. If the two teams end level on points the winner of the head to head still goes through.
But in another respect the Brave Blossoms did Townsend a huge favour. They reminded him of what a small, skilful and quick-witted team can achieve against brute size and strength. They reminded him of just how good Scotland could be.