I t is already an odd World Cup for Scotland. We didn’t, as the old hack used to put it, “trouble the scorecard” in losing to Ireland. Now, against Samoa and Russia, we have scored 95 points and conceded none. Clean sheets are rare in rugby now; two in a row very rare. Critics have for a long time said it’s too easy to score tries against Scotland. Well, we’ll see how the defence stands up against Japan.
This may, as commentators kindly suggested, have been a match too far for Russia. Certainly they were scarcely in it after the first ten minutes. But the precision and weight of the Scottish tackling in midfield and around the fringes had something to do with that.
Even games when the backs run riot are usually won first of all up front, and the Scottish forwards were dominant, secure at the scrum and, in the line-out, powerful and organized in the maul, carrying strongly, and predatory at the breakdown.
Some of the starting XV – Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, George Turner, George Horne, Adam Hastings, Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham – are still in the happy Springtime of what should be long international careers and they played with confidence and youthful zest. For others – Tommy Seymour, Peter Horne, John Barclay, Ryan Wilson and Gordon Reid – it may be autumn rather than spring but, on this showing, still someway short of winter. John Barclay would probably tell you that these days any try he scores is likely to be from much shorter range than the one he cantered over for yesterday, but what a pleasure it was to see him score it, and how well deserved. Likewise Tommy Seymour’s twentieth international try showed all the awareness and alacrity that have characterised his game for years now.
Still the try of the match was George Horne’s second. His first was a piece of typically alert poaching. The second came from Darcy Graham’s dizzy-making run and generosity in passing when he could probably have scored himself. It started when he fielded a loose kick deep in his own half. Japan will surely note that it’s a bad idea to kick loosely to young Darcy, just as (I hope) we won’t kick carelessly to the dazzling Kotaro Matsushima.
Adam Hastings, rarely under pressure, played with all the confidence, even arrogance, of his father Gavin, and kicked intelligently from hand. As for young Horne, his ratio of tries scored to minutes on the field, for both club and country, must be extraordinary. His elder brother Peter, pictured, whose selection for the cup attracted criticism, far too much criticism, showed in both defence and attack just why Gregor Townsend values him so highly.
It was especially pleasing to see Duncan Taylor having a considerable influence on the game, always in the right place and doing the right thing. One has wondered whether, after his many injuries and long lay-off over the last two seasons, the World Cup might have come too soon for him, and that was indeed the impression one had after the Ireland match. Now, with thoughts turning to Japan on Sunday, and having seen him play well for the full eighty minutes, one wonders if he may start again. On the other hand Chris Harris had a very good game against Samoa. So it would scarcely be a surprise if Taylor gets no further than the bench. Certainly the sight of a player of his skill, intelligence and experience coming on for the last half-hour of what is likely to be a close match would be reassuring.
Not everything went right yesterday. Two tries were correctly chalked off for forward passes, and that’s the sort of carelessness easily forgiven when you are well ahead on the scoreboard, infuriating and hard to forgive in other circumstances. Then Blair Kinghorn foozled the second-half restart, so that instead of Scotland being deep in the opposition half or having their own line-out from a clearing kick, Russia had a scrum on halfway. A better team (Japan) might have made something of that.
Though there will be much argument about the selection of the XV to start against Japan, it seems likely that the line-up will be the same as against Samoa. What is clear is that the morale of the whole squad should now be high. The recovery since the dreadful Irish game has been impressive. In recent World Cups Scotland have had scratchy wins against team they should have beaten more comfortably: Samoa in 2015, Georgia in 2011 (when they also lost, if narrowly, to Argentina and England in the pool stage), Italy in 2007, Fiji in 2003 when they reached the quarter-final despite suffering a very heavy pool defeat (9-51)to France, worse even that this year’s Ireland one. This time they have shown character to put the Ireland game behind them and have dealt convincingly with Samoa and Russia. A typhoon may threaten to disrupt this weekend, but at least the sun is shining in the Scotland camp again.