Scotland went into this match in the unlikely position of being bookies favourites but with nearly everyone else predicting Japan would hand them a spanking similar to the one dished out to the Springboks. Japan were also under pressure to prove that game was no flash in the pan after a short turnaround from the weekend.
In the end Scotland ran riot, putting 5 tries past Japan as the pressure in the final half hour told and Finn Russell, Matt Scott and Mark Bennett cut loose.
It was a different story from the first half where Japan had produced what was now expected of them, hauling back Greig Laidlaw’s twin penalties with a textbook driving lineout move that was deployed to devastating effect for the game’s first try, Mafi coming up with the ball from a heap of bodies with precious few navy shirts in it.
A bizarre armless headbutt to Grant Gilchrist’s knee gave Laidlaw another penalty. The Kingsholm resident is often criticised for his box kicks and while his early efforts were poorly chased, they did highlight that Japan were making the errors of handling and concentration so absent last Saturday.
After more guddling gave Laidlaw his fourth from four penalties, Japan came charging back in an effort to gain parity but the Scottish defence managed to contain them until the lively Tommy Seymour broke free from a turnover. Only defensive mischief by Matsushima stopped a likely try so he was sent to the bin for his efforts by referee John Lacey.
For a change Laidlaw missed that penalty, and Japan spurned one of their own in favour of another crack at the lineout, but Scotland made a mess of their attempt and forced a knock on. After Lacey penalised Al Dickinson at the scrum, Japan took the kick this time but the usually excellent Goromaru skewed it wide.
Restored to fifteen men, Japan came storming back at the Scottish line but even an NFL style dive over the top of ruck by Mafi couldn’t get the ball down. A massive Russell clearance gave Scotland a final attacking chance of their own, but at the attack from the ensuing lineout he rashly went for the miss pass when quick hands would have drawn in the Japanese defenders and a superb covering tackle by Goromaru on Seymour kept the Scots out and the scoreboard tight.
HT: Scotland 12-7 Japan
Japan coach Eddie Jones said that if his men were still in it at half time they’d run Scotland ragged and go on to win, so the match was fascinatingly poised.
The Scots had a shaky start as Japan were faster out of the blocks and immediately pushed the game deep into the Scots half. Unfortunately for Japan, their talismanic back row Mafi was stretchered off which perhaps gave Laidlaw a second stab at a team talk, because from then on it was almost like watching a different game.
Great interplay between Scott and Hardie on a charge up the touchline gave Scotland a ruck on the Japanese line. With his attacking line set up on the right, Laidlaw popped it to Hardie on the blindside and he dove over for the try to put the cherry on an extremely impressive performance.
The celebrations were a little short lived as Richie Gray (fresh on) misjudged the restart and nearly gifted Matsushima the softest of tries. Luckily the scramble defense led by Hardie and Scott was up to the challenge and the threat passed.
With only seven points the difference and memories of the Japanese refusal to let the Springboks build any sort of margin fresh in the memory, Scotland needed more and Mark Bennett delivered, cutting a great line on a popped inside ball from Russell and grabbing the first of his two tries. With big screen replays giving referees reason to reconsider everything this World Cup, Laidlaw popped the conversion over before anyone could take a look at Bennett’s left foot hovering dangerously close to the dead ball line as he touched down.
Things improved further moments later as the Japanese were suddenly forced to chase a game they had until recently been very much involved in, and Seymour picked off an interception (as he does) in a near carbon copy of Hogg’s try against Italy in 2013. Suddenly it was looking rosy at 31-10 and from “nae chance”, Scotland now had the bonus point in sight.
Bennett capped a very positive second half with a great step and some smart running beating several defenders and sealing the bonus point with a brilliant solo try.
The final ten minutes of the game became a bit of a birthday party for 23 year old Finn Russell who pulled out plenty from his ever-growing bag of trips including one offload to Matt Scott that Gregor Townsend would have been proud of, before hot-stepping over for a try of his own as Japan were unable to keep pace.
Questions should and will be asked of the gaps in turnaround faced by some of the lesser teams, but Scotland now face a four day switch to Leeds for the next match with the USA, and actually sit somewhere near the bottom of the table for average rest time between games – only Australia have it worse.
Meanwhile, on the only table that matters, Scotland sit atop Pool B for now at least.
SRBlog Man of the Match: Greig Laidlaw picked up the plaudits for his points haul but John Hardie put in a phenomenal amount of work in both attack and defence as well as contributing heavily to the try that turned the tide. We can see now why he’s here.