Scotland 29-20 Japan: Stuart Hogg makes history but Scots have to work hard for Autumn Nations Series win
Three out of four ain’t bad as Meatloaf didn’t say and Scotland duly completed their Autumn Nations Series with a 29-20 win over Japan which was embroidered with a record-breaking moment from Stuart Hogg.
The captain finished a smart move in the first half to become Scotland’s all-time leading male try-scorer on 25, moving one ahead of Ian Smith and Tony Stanger.
Hogg has long been a totemic figure for the national side and this landmark cements his standing on the occasion of his 88th cap. He is now the fourth most capped Scotland player, with only Ross Ford, Chris Paterson and Sean Lamont in front of him.
The victory was anything but straightforward and every time Scotland got their noses in front Japan came roaring back. The Brave Blossoms had suffered an awful hammering in Dublin a fortnight ago but there never looked like any prospect of a repeat at Murrayfield.
This was the first meeting of the sides since that evening in Yokohama when Scotland were eliminated from the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Japan have been lightly raced since and no-one expected too much in Edinburgh but they showed signs of recapturing their old danger.
It wasn’t a vintage Scotland performance but following on from the wins over Tonga and Australia and a solitary defeat by world champions South Africa this will go down as a satisfactory autumn campaign for Gregor Townsend’s side.
They scored four tries against Japan, with Duhan van der Merwe, Darcy Graham and Stuart McInally also crossing, but they also conceded one, to Tevita Tatafu, which led to the final minutes being more nervy than they should have been.
The record-breaking moment came in the 26th minute and it was Hogg who sparked the move by bursting through from his own half. The forwards took it on, led by George Turner, before Russell played it back to Hogg who raised his left-arm in celebration as he crossed the line.
Smith’s mark of 24 tries has stood for 88 years and was matched by Stanger in 1998 and Hogg himself last week but the Exeter Chiefs full-back now stands alone with a quarter of a century of tries for his country.
Japan had been 6-5 ahead at that point thanks to two penalties from stand-off Rikiya Matsuda but the lead only lasted a couple of minutes and Russell converted Hogg’s try to move the Scots 12-6 ahead.
Hogg might be out in front as Scotland’s leading try-scorer but he probably needs to keep an eye on van der Merwe. The big winger plundered his ninth try in only his 13th appearance to give the home side early momentum.
Japan had retained the ball well in the opening minutes but the Scots took advantage when they were caught offside. Russell kicked for the corner and Japan initially held firm in the face of the lineout drive but Scotland turned the screw and van der Merwe forced his way over with the help of Grant Gilchrist to give Townsend’s side a fifth-minute lead.
Russell struck the post with his conversion attempt and Scotland then went through a wobbly phase in which they conceded a rash of penalties. They gave away six in the opening 24 minutes, five of them at the breakdown, prompting referee Brendon Pickerill to have a little chat with Hogg.
Japan’s most notable threat came from a weaving run from Kotaro Matsushima and they were rewarded with Matsuda’s second penalty.
Hogg’s score put the Scots back in the driving seat and they went in at the break with their tails up thanks to a third try, this time from Graham.
It started with a scrum on the left but it was Russell who created the opening with a looping pass which missed out two Japanese backs. Graham still had work to do as he cut back inside three defenders but his finishing was spot on. Russell converted to make it 19-6 at the interval.
If Scotland thought they were home and hosed they were quickly disabused of the notion in the early stages of the second half. Pickerill’s patience snapped and it was Jamie Bhatti who bore the brunt. The prop, starting his first international in over two years, was shown the yellow card for not rolling away quickly enough as the Kiwi referee decided to punish Scotland’s repeat offending. It wasn’t like they hadn’t been warned.
Matsuda rubbed salt in the wound by kicking the penalty and added another three minutes later as first Craig Millar and then Matsushima put pressure on the home defence.
Down to 14 men, Scotland needed to steady the ship and McInally provided the stabilising influence as they returned to their full complement.
The replacement hooker had been on the field for a matter of seconds when he extended the lead with his 11th international try. McInally took a lineout throw five metres out then joined the back of the train as Scotland executed a well practised move with aplomb. Russell converted.
But Japan weren’t done and scored a deserved try in the 63rd minute. Ryoto Nakamura secured a lineout close to the Scotland line with a perfectly measured 50-22 kick and James Moore got the better of Scott Cummings at the set-piece. Tatafu, on as a sub, used his formidable strength to barge his way past Hamish Watson and over for the score.
Matsuda made a hash of the conversion but made amends a few minutes later with his fifth penalty of the game as Japan reduced Scotland’s lead to six points going into the final nine minutes.
Were Scotland worried? You bet, and when they were awarded a penalty just outside the 22 with a couple of minutes remaining Hogg instructed Russell to kick for goal rather than go for the corner. The stand-off looked slightly miffed but duly delivered to give Scotland some breathing space with a 29-20 lead.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: van der Merwe, Hogg, Graham, McInally. Cons: Russell 3. Pen: Russell.
Japan: Try: Tatafu. Pens: Matsuda 5.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (c); Darcy Graham (Blair Kinghorn 62), Chris Harris, Sam Johnson, Duhan van der Merwe; Finn Russell, Ali Price (George Horne 61); Jamie Bhatti (Watson 53-71; Dylan Richardson 71), George Turner (Stuart McInally), Zander Fagerson (Javan Sebastian 62), Scott Cummings (Sam Skinner 71), Grant Gilchrist, Jamie Ritchie (Matt Fagerson 61), Hamish Watson (Pierre Schoeman 48), Josh Bayliss.
Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Shogo Nakano (Dylan Riley 40), Ryoto Nakamura, Siosaia Fifita; Rikiya Matsuda, Yutaka Nagare; Craig Millar, Atsushi Sakate, Asaeli Ai Valu, Jack Cornelsen, James Moore, Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne (c), Kazuki Himeno.
Substitutes: Kosuke Horikoshi, Keita Inagaki, Shinnosuke Kakinaga, Ben Gunter, Tevita Tatafu, Naoto Saito, Yu Tamura.
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (NZ).
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