Iplayed against Japan’s head coach Jamie Joseph at the World Cup in 1995 when the Kiwi was a useful stopper of a six. I tackled him once and, by tackle, I mean bounced off in a humiliating manner although the amateur days were more forgiving. Thank goodness.
Joseph, pictured below, has brains to go with his more obvious brawn and he out-foxed fellow Kiwi Joe Schmidt last weekend when Japan were superb in that game against Ireland. Scotland cannot say that they have not been forewarned although it is still not obvious that they have armed themselves against what is coming down the tracks.
The Japanese play multi-phase rugby, they do so at a frenetic pace and with surprisingly few mistakes. With 25 per cent more passes than Scotland managed against Samoa, Japan still made just 10 handling errors against Ireland compared to Scotland’s 13. Scotland still need to tighten things, greasy ball or not.
Most important of all is Japan’s ruck speed which is second to none and which is achieved by a brutal and deep clear-out. With almost all teams employing a “rush defence” this ruck speed gives the defence no time to “reload” (ie get back onside) before the next attack is launched.
The defence is almost always on the back foot and while the Blossoms don’t have many players who can slice open an opposition, the relentless nature of their offence creates huge stress and usually makes good metres.
Scotland’s defence is less aggressive, by design or chance, than most and against Japan this could even offer a small advantage. If the defender in the 13 channel is a little slower out the blocks, he hasn’t so far to retreat to get back onside before the next phase of play. He may not be rushing up to meet the next Japanese attack but at least he shouldn’t be running backwards to get onside when it comes.
After the horror show of the opening match, it was a relief to see Scotland do what they had to do against Samoa but no-one can claim that the team’s problems have gone away after beating a team only in Japan thanks to two wins over Germany in the repechage system. More interesting was the way that the inclusion of just one player significantly altered Scotland’s attacking shape, briefly.
Scotland’s best ball carrier was not even in the original 31-man squad but that injury to Hamish Watson opened the door and Magnus Bradbury took his opportunity against Samoa. Scotland played their best, most-controlled rugby in the opening exchanges of the game and the blindside flanker carried the ball five times in the first seven-and-a-half minutes usually with some success and almost always requiring more than one Samoan tackler to halt him. Bradbury finished with 12 carries and should be a shoo-in for the starting XV to play against Japan. Stuart McInally also carried with conviction and you wonder if Gregor Townsend contemplated shifting his skipper back to his old position of No 8 after bringing Fraser Brown, another dynamic ball carrier, into the front row on 51 minutes.
I was unconvinced by McInally’s move to hooker and I still am. Yes, he has made a success of the switch but you have to factor in the opportunity cost. In Brown, Scotland have a very able hooker and this team desperately need a skilful distributer and ball-carrying No 8 who runs close to the ground because the leggy Blade Thomson is horribly susceptible to Japan’s chop tackle. In fairness, Thomson is still feeling his way at this level and you fancy there is more to come from him.
You have to hope the same of Scotland boss Townsend who still seems glued to his “fastest -rugby” philosophy despite the obvious advantage that that tactic gives the host nation. If Townsend insists Scotland play Japan at their own game, the smart money rides with the Brave Blossoms and yet, in the Samoan match, a dress rehearsal for that final pool clash, Scotland still played too fast and too loose while Greig Laidlaw was long with his box kicks. Give the ball to Japan and you won’t see it again for a while.
At one point in the second 40, slap bang in the middle of the field, Finn Russell passed to Stuart Hogg who passed to Laidlaw who passed back to Russell who finally fired it downtown; an episode that did not scream tactical clarity.
Townsend’s tactical clarity will come under the microscope when his side takes to the field against Japan. Scotland can win and progress to the quarters but only if they abandon their coach’s “fastest- rugby” philosophy and replace it with something like the slowest.