Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


2nd Test: Japan 16-21 Scotland

Josh Strauss - pic © Al Ross/Novantae Photography
Josh Strauss - pic © Al Ross/Novantae Photography

It was a topsy turvy start in Tokyo, to a test match that in many ways was the opposite of the one last weekend. Last week the Scots enjoyed the territory and the possession and never really looked like losing. This one, they could have lost quite easily.

There was an opening exchange of penalties between kickers, Henry Pyrgos looking assured with the boot. Both sides were trying and failing to throw the ball about though clearly the ball had other ideas, going missing from everyone’s hands in loose play and at the lineout. Sadly Stuart McInally didn’t have a great game in that regard for a second week running.

Tommy Seymour was a pre-match injury concern but was actually one of Scotland’s better performers during an opening half characterised by handling errors. The Scottish defence was clearly well prepared, and exit strategies following turnovers were generally well executed through Stuart Hogg’s boot.

This in turn forced the Japanese to attack from deep; despite the conditions this was something they were happy to do and they illustrated the most effective facet of their game with an end to end, side to side move on 20 minutes that ended with scrum half Kaito Shigeno under the posts.

Poor discipline had killed Japan’s momentum last weekend and it happened again almost straight away with two quick, kickable penalties in succession. Pyrgos missed the longer of the two but it kept Scotland in touch on the scoreboard when in reality they were struggling to put any sort of continuity together.

Tamura kicked a penalty of his own to make it 13-9 by the half hour mark, but Pete Horne’s spot of handbags just before half time showed Scottish frustrations boiling over.

With the last play of the half Scotland finally secured a lineout, but then after some neat offloading spilled the ball and Japan counter-attacked, roared on by the crowd. It was humid, sweaty and Scotland looked tired at the end of a long season with 40 minutes still to play.

Half-time: Japan 13-9 Scotland

In the second half, Scotland had the best of starts – an attacking position close to the line – and the worst of starts, Pyrgos then throwing a potentially try scoring pass across the goal line that was intercepted by centre Tim Bennetts. That, as it turns out, was as close as Scotland would come to a try in the game.

Vern Cotter had swapped the entire front row at half time, and John Hardie came on for the injured Ryan Wilson about five minutes later.

The key change came when Greig Laidlaw entered the fray, and unusually he provided direction and impetus with some strong phases from his pack and a bit of Glasgow style offloading led by Pete Horne and Ruaridh Jackson.

The men in navy improved slightly in approach and execution and penalties began to flow. Laidlaw kicked a long range (on a short pitch) effort to reduce the score to just a point. Japan looked keen and fit, but indiscipline crept in again.

Jackson’s channel had been targeted all game but it wasn’t until Stormers centre Huw Jones earned his first cap that Horne could move inside to shore things up. Jones’s first kick was charged down but that was hardly his fault given the tiny in goal areas of the pitch. He did well to secure a vital late turnover but the Scots had so little possession that he didn’t get the ball in hand otherwise.

Last week Scotland dominated territory and possession and things were much more even in the second test and they were noticeably under the cosh at times. Japan ran everything and often challenged the Scottish line.

However the rejuvenated pack edged the set piece in the second half and a series of scrums (starting from that Jones turnover) ground out another kick for Laidlaw and a 2 point lead at 16-18 with ten minutes left.

Laidlaw continued in his role as unlikely saviour when Japan’s urge to run in their own 22 led up a Matt Scott-shaped blind alley and another penalty made it 16-21.

Even at that scoreline a Japanese try was never out of the question, but sadly a Scotland one was and once again Laidlaw elected to play keep-ball with the pack rather than let the underused backs have one last crack before Stuart Hogg booted it into touch on the hooter.

SRBlog Man of the Match: Extremely hard to call this one, as it was a bad day at the office all round. Hogg’s boot went well, Strauss was the pick of the ball carriers – and even he knocked on several times. That horribly unambitious up-the-jumper stuff in the dying minutes aside, Greig Laidlaw made the difference to drag Scotland over the finish line and a test series win.

59 Responses

  1. Shuffled the deck…and found out what doesn’t work. Got away with it but the lesson is clear: More depth reqd….

  2. That was painful viewing, but how often have we seen a similarly scrappy performance with us on the losing side?

    At the end of the day it’s a win and more ranking points, but we have looked off the pace in both the tests – side effect of a long, hard season?

    1. Have to agree, time to go home, have a breather and get ready for next season. Not a lot of plusses for me. Take the ranking points and be thankful. We will play a lot better and lose.

  3. I’m sure there will be plenty who’ll still find a way, FF. He has been the difference between winning and losing in a fair few games now. Yes, he doesn’t have it all, but he is crucial to the team.

  4. As Stern Vern Twittered a wee while ago “its hard to get a handle on this team from one week to the next” – Laidlaw & Nel changed the game.
    Laidlaw is an interesting one, for all the world looking like he is taking ages & slowing the game down he does seem to be utterly crucial to Scotland, Pygros has played some magnificent games for Glasgow but its simply not happened for him in Dark Blue, Laidlaw’s game management & Nel scrum excellence won us the game. Jones turned over (I think) a game changing ball in the corner near the end too.
    2-0 is pleasing but not particularly the manner it was achieved.
    The mistakes made beggared belief & Cotter must be wondering…………………..

  5. Two wins away from home. Take that anytime. Especially after a long season and humid weather. Well done guys.

  6. That was dire. OK, humid conditions, but the best team, the one that played all the rugby, lost. I cannot recall one attack where we looked remotely like scoring a try. The overall game not helped by Mitrea, who is genuinely awful.

    Kudos for the defence under pressure, but it was only when Nel, Laidlaw and Hardie came on that we got control at the set piece, and Laidlaw’s kicking was immaculate. A tour that some of the contenders, Jackson in particular, will want to forget. Yes, take the wins and the ranking points, but it’s a reality check on where we are. Cotter has an awful lot of work to do.

    1. I agree with most of you points but not sure if Japan really deserved to win – their set piece crumbled, their discipline was abject (how on earth they avoided a yellow card with 17 penalties against them I don’t know) and their bench was extremely poor. They do what they do exceptionally well, but they were only in the game because our tactics and execution were abysmal. The fact we won was because we were still better at some of the fundamentals of rugby – ugly, but effective.

  7. Laidlaw ‘unusually provided direction and impetus’!?!

    Without Laidlaw on the pitch Scotland look completely headless, this week, this season, the last couple of years. All of Scotland’s best performances over the last couple of years have featured him as one of the best players on the pitch – in the World Cup he was this difference between us reaching the QF and getting dumped out by Samoa. Once more, calls for him to be replaced have been shown to be completely baseless after Pyrgos fluffed his lines again (as did McInally). What is this Scottish obsession with scapegoating one of our best players?

    1. Laidlaw came on to face a tiring Japan team, his goal kicking which was a result of poor Japanese disipline won us the game. Let’s not pretend he turned the game with mercucial and dynamic scrum half play…

      1. He doesn’t get picked to be mercurial. He gets picked to control and run the game, that is what he is good at. Pyrgos certainly wasn’t winning the game.

      2. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a Laidlaw hated per se, he’s good at what he does, and a worrying lack of alternatives is not his fault. But if we’re relying on Laidlaws boot and his ‘steady game management’ to get us through games then I can’t think what the next step is….I suppose we will have to a wait for another scum half to put his hand up. Could be waiting a while I fear.

    2. I totally agree – I think this is a fashion on this blog and the Scotsman blog. It’s really boring and undermined by the analysis.

      Just as in the World Cup, when laidlaw was off the field (1st 60 mins of Japan game) we struggled. When he came on we were galvanised and went onto win. I love Pyrgos, but Laidlaw brings calm assurance to the job. He is a better decision maker and all the talk about his slow pass is often just that.

      Once it is suggested people just agree and take it on and on. Laidlaw is no good, get rid of Ford (did you see some of the throwing today?) etc

  8. Wow you managed two digs at Greig Laidlaw in a single match report: “unusually he provided direction” and “Laidlaw continued in his role as unlikely saviour”. Stay classy.

    1. I was waiting for Laidlaw to come on to get things better organised. That’s what happened.

  9. Visser, Taylor, Dunbar, Bennett, Russell, Dickinson, Ford, Gilchrist missing, add Cornell Du Preez, that’s 9 players to add to the 23.

    So….Hogg, Seymour, Taylor, Dunbar, Visser, Russell, Laidlaw, Strauss, Hardie, Du Preez, R.Gray, J.Gray, Nel, Ford, Dickinson – reps Bennett/Horne, Maitland/Jones, Pygros, Barclay/Denton, Gilchrist, Sutherland, Brown, Reid V Aussies????

    1. I think there is some doubt as to when Russell will be back, going by comments at the end of the season. Regardless of whether he is back for November internationals we need a competent back up fast. Jackson was ok – not a disaster but failed to boss the game as a FH should.

      The Georgia game looks like a giant banana skin – it is simply a must win, we’ll have a fair chance against Argentina again and Oz will probably put out a weakened team given the toughness of their schedule.

  10. I’m going to reap a whirlwind but Hogg should play 10 if Russell isn’t fit, Weir is a solid citizen but has failed miserably whenever called upon, Horne is not a 10 (I suppose you could say Hogg is not a 10), but given the way Scotland play (and whom we play) we NEED a threat at 10. Wherever Hogg plays he will be a threat

    1. It obviously has been mentioned before Jocky, but it’s not outrageous, depending on who else is fit. If Russell is injured and Maitland, Seymour and Visser are all fit, then Hogg could move to 10 with Maitland at full back. Personally, I’m fairly happy with Horne at 10 though.

      1. The only passable FH performance for Scotland which wasn’t Finn Russell in the last two years was Horne v France. I was hoping Jackson would step up but he was disappointing. I wonder if Heathcote will ever get another shot?

        I was dead set against moving our best player from his natural position but if we can’t find a decent back up to Russell then maybe Hogg will have to step up eventually. Hopefully Adam Hastings will come good before too long.

  11. Great win away from home with a team selected from basically 2 pro teams, some lads off the bench in English teams and a laddie who was over in Cape Town a couple of weeks ago! We are punching well above our weight these days. In a couple of years we will be below the likes of Japan and the USA (now they have 5 pro teams).

  12. I was/am generally also against moving Hoggy out of position, but that was more to do with a permanent switch, pre-Russell. No question now that Russell is the answer there, so I’m more relaxed about Hoggy doing a shift if Russell’s out for whatever reason. Maitland (fit and on form) is also a decent alternative at fullback. Hastings and Kinghorn could indeed provide a bit of cover/options in the not too distant future.

    1. I am concerned when we think players will return from injury and pick up where they left off. Do we know what the medical advice is ? He will likely be wearing head protection as a starter, and well , if you have to wear it , it will be a mental hinderance, IMO. I think we will need to have more depth to maintain a top 8 place.

  13. No way do you want Hogg at 10. He’s a strike runner, there isn’t time and space at 10 for him to make the impact he does.

    Just now when he gets the ball you know there is a decent chance he will pick a mismatch and make a line break. At 10 he will be getting smashed by organised back rows who move at pace. It’s too busy closer in and he only has a standing start.

    I used to be a massive fan of this btw, but modern 10s are not what we remember from even 10 years ago. The fitness levels of packs now means that I think they are more kick/passers who make breaks now and again. Every time Hogg gets the ball you know he is thinking it’s make a break time.

    1. The more I watch, the more I think Horne is our best back up. Hogg – NO – why are they not looking at Heathcote? Not ideal.

  14. Just watching England under 20s destroying Ireland and also ruminating on the various Summer Series. Not feeling like we’re going to be troubling the upper tier of the 6 N table anytime soon, and we could be facing an extended period of English dominance, not to mention annihilation at Twickenham next year.

  15. It was a win , not a great one however a few factors may have contributed. Japan are a niggly team, they break up momentum with penalties, very humid conditions, too many changes. We arrived late, to a shortened pitch with no time to adjust. In these conditions you need to stay in touch first half , which they did, regroup for the second half, which they won. All positive responses.

    Pyrgos has not seen a lot of game time and landed captaincy just to burden hIm more, come on VC !

    The replacements, every single one of them, galvanised the team. I am pleased for Gordon Reid who was completely dropped from the tour, well done.

    The Japan try was brilliant, however we need to take the credit for coming back after such a humiliating blow.

    When we needed him most , Laidlaw was there.

  16. According to chat online, France’s 27-0 win over Argentina means France will go above us into 7th, Argentina have fallen to 9th and we’ve stayed at 8th.

    The draw takes place after the 2017 6N, so Argentina will play SA/AUS/NZ twice, England, Wales and Scotland away. We play AUS, ARG, GEO, IRE, WAL, ITA at home and ENG/FRA away.

    Gives us an ok chance as Argentina have clearly not adapted to playing without their European players yet and the Jaguars are doing miserably in Super Rugby. The AI games against Argentina and Georgia will have a lot riding on them as losing will take off a big chunk of rankings points.

    Also – I think Georgia are up to 10th! Going to be a tough match against a brutal pack.

    1. Spot on about Georgia – unfortunately there will still be many who think we’ll just have to turn up to win ( hopefully none of them actually on the park ! :).

  17. Georgia are very strong & probably better than Italy just now, as the venue is TBC, I suggest the SRU pick a nice big pitch, to give Messers Visser, Hogg & Bennett some space.

  18. Not sure if this tour has advanced the team any. On the positive side, two wins against one of our rivals for the bottom end of the ‘Top 8’ means that the threat from Japan has been stymied, although they’ll be a more dangerous team (with better coaching)to be drawn against in the next World Cup.
    On the negative side, the lack of strength in depth, which most of us knew about already, was reinforced. No new players broke through and showed the potential to step now into the international team, which is an indictment on not only them but the system. Players who are rated at Pro 12 level (take a bow Mr Pyrgos) are, despite amassing over 15 caps, not worthy of a starting jersey at international level. Ross Ford’s international career will continue for at least another year in the absence of a viable alternative.
    We are overly dependent on the same core of players who served us well at the last World Cup, but I fear Mr Johnston will be resuming the search for more project players.

  19. Highland Bear – Agree with much of what you say, I’d like to see Pygros playing with a full strength pack in front of him for a game or 2.

    I’m not sure if the McInally experiment at hooker has been a 100% success, I’d have expected him to be closer to 18st by now, I reckon he’s too light.

    The old problem – stand off – without Russell we really struggle, Jackson hasn’t looked too good, Weir has failed, Heathcote needs another chance & thats pretty much it currently, really Edinburgh should make Hastings their #1 stand off (rather than a Welshman/Weir)

  20. Surely part of Johnston’s remit is to find / devise a way to “hot house” promising guys in the exposed positions (lots of them right now), so we can grow guys who are ready to make the step up? Not just game time at Pro12 or equivalent, but attendance at squad get togethers…….and so on. It’s not obvious to me, but he has to earn his corn. We can’t wait for project players, and in any event that door, if not about to be closed will take a lot longer to push open. We have too many “nearly but not quites”.

  21. open the oldest of the old chestnuts………………3rd pro team.

    Look at Connacht.

  22. I am despondent.
    The visit to Japan may have finally proved that the present crop of players are just not up to raising their game to the next level in reality. There are plenty of excuses (some very good) but there have been too many excuses over the years now – even bold words from this group of players. But no delivery – except as a wild exception.
    Its time to be brutally honest.
    – Many of our present squad are just not up to consistent professional delivery at the highest level – except on a very good day.
    – Some seem real gems though – Hogg & Nel.
    – Collectively and individually they talk a good game but cannot deliver during a match.
    – Half of those chosen for our squad are lucky to be there and we lack any depth of quality players
    – We need to do everything to hang on the 8-10 place in the world until …
    – We need to change a lot in how we look at ourselves, our expectations and what we try to achieve. Many change needed

  23. Yes the tests were far from compelling, but I don’t think we need to get unrealistically doom and gloom about it. There are a few potentially mitigating factors, such as the conditions, the mentality of playing a lower ranked team, no Russell etc. However, the reality is that 8 – 10 in the rankings is pretty much where we are at for the next wee while. We’ve a fairly tough task just keeping a toe hold around 8th and staying ahead of the teams a few places below us, let alone hoping to climb further. That would essentially involve chipping off one of Ireland, Wales or Argentina. The first two are better resourced than us on pretty much all fronts, and both have a fairly steady seam of proven form in the recent past. To convincingly usurp either would take a fairly spectacular turn of circumstances and events. Argentina do very well given their resources – and that gives us hope. On the other hand – can you imagine being a French supporter? All those resources and talent and not sitting in the top 5. I suppose my point is that substantial improvement for us is to get to around the resources, playing numbers, results and performances that Ireland and Wales achieve just now. That is a long term project, those teams are also striving to improve, and I don’t think we’re going to see miraculous changes in our performances and fortunes in the short term.

    1. There is barely a baw hair separating us (8th), France (7th) and Argentina (9th). Fiji, Georgia and Japan are a long way back in 10-12th. I think that is a pretty fair reflection of where we are, the only surprising thing is how fast Argentina have slipped down the rankings. Also, how far adrift Italy are.

      1. Interesting how things have changed since the RWC when Argentina were deservedly top 4. Weren’t many bawhairs separating us and Japan on Saturday either at times…

      2. Argentina no longer select European-based players, so it isn’t surprising they are struggling to maintain their performance levels as they have a relatively callow team. It won’t last as their u-20s are excellent and will grow up playing in Super rugby. We might be lucky to catch Argentina at a low point in November and keep our top 8 place. Our chances of staying ahead of France are weakened by playing them in Paris next season.

  24. One thing’s for sure: on Saturday the best team neither won nor lost. In a contest between two teams, only the better team can win or lose. The substitutions certainly made the difference……..but it is disconcerting that a backline of much-vaunted prowess proved unable to score a single try and we had to resort to our usual avenue for rescuing a lost cause — gaining penalties from scrummage superiority and accumulating points from Laidlaw’s unerring boot. Many of us hoped we would simply outplay Japan in an exciting, open test; instead we were forced to win via one of the game’s most static phases. The second tier of international rugby is becoming very crowded and we can never aspire to anything beyond eighth without greater accuracy and ambition in our play.

  25. If you’d told me the scores before the tour started, and how the games would have panned out, then I would have taken that. Japan is very different environment to Scotland, and the fact that a large proportion of our RWC2019 squad has now been exposed to those conditions, and returned victorious, is hugely beneficial.

    Yes, I’d much rather we had scored a barrel load of tries, but it didn’t happen, and while this is incredibly frustrating given the quality of players we now have available who are capable of scoring, it doesn’t mean that the series was pointless or a failure.

    What has been learned is that, with a number of changes made, Scotland can still defend solidly and for long periods. A few years back this would not have been the case. We also learned that the attacking edge is blunted with the changes. Due to the improved defence the squad can at least take comfort from the wins, while looking to improve other areas. Again in the past, it would have been a case of lacking in defence, and in attack, and not knowing where to begin to make progress.

    I’m looking forward to the AI’s now. I would be very pleasantly surprised to win 3 games, but I see 2 as a realistic target. However, all three opponents will be out to prove a point – Australia to show the spanking they just got off England was a blip, Argentina to arrest the slide, and Georgia to do the usual thing of any upcoming sides and target Scotland as the most likely chance of a win against a traditional power in the game. So the defensive fortitude shown in Japan these last two weeks will need to be on display again.

    1. The Georgia game fills me with trepidation – we’ve long struggled to cope with Italy’s big pack no risk game, and Georgia will bring that in spades. Disappointing it won’t be in Murrayfield’s wide open spaces. Our pack will need to front up after two big tests in the preceding weeks. This game looks horrible for us.

      1. Since 5/9/15 Japan have beaten Georgia , South Africa , Samoa and USA . Only Scotland have beaten them , 3 times ! Give the boys some credit

  26. It’s certainly too easy for us armchair commentators to sit in comfort and type our critiques. Two wins in a difficult environment should be pleasing…….but much verbiage has been expended on Scotland’s new cutting-edge and on that basis it was understandable to hope for more tries, not only in the context of the tour itself, but also in terms of our future competitiveness against the major powers. We all know that our players give everything they’ve got for the jersey. Their commitment is not in question — but can we compete on the world stage in terms of skills and ability?

    1. No Russell, Dunbar , Taylor , Bennett a big part of the reason perhaps in the second game in particular

  27. Said it before…we are punching well above our 2 pro team selves. The Seniors are 8th and the U20s are also 8th. What would make both these squads climb the rankings?
    We need players playing and training at the highest level. If that is a 3rd Pro Team, 2 A teams or London Scottish (or all 3) we will not improve on the test stage on the regular and consistent basis we (the fans) want and expect!
    We have had a great run starting with the RWC and ending in Tokyo. Huge improvements and some great wins.Strength in depth and player burnout must be a major worry for all

  28. Nel and Reid…i think, came to see fans after the game, before heading down the tunnel. The rest of the players chose not to bother.

    Is this too much to ask of sportsmen that they might recognise the travelling fans and be thankful for the support?

  29. Pbtf – Remember no Visser, Ford, Dickinson either. After reading Kev’s blog & off the top of my head
    3rd pro team – Bryce, Farndale, Robinson, Horne, Robbins, Hastings, Hart, Denton, Blake/Watson, Bradbury, Mackenzie, Swinson, Welsh, Brown, ANother with Mike Blair & John Dalziell coaching

  30. I’m not sure what to make of the two matches. Reminded me a lot of the Scotland of a few years ago; boring, slow, full of mistakes and never looked like scoring a try. However we won both matches. How many times in the past few years have we played really well but still lost? Winning is everything in test matches, IMO the mark of a good team is one that can play awfully and still win, bit like Wales of the last year or two.

    In terms of the player pool we didn’t learn much, just that Laidlaw coming on steadied the ship and gave much needed leadership, Ross Ford is begrudgingly still our best choice at hooker and Finn is the only person capable of playing at 10. I would have liked to see Horne getting a run at 10 as his performance there in the 6N was one of the best performances I have seen from a Scotland player in recent years.

    Still appears to be a general lack of effort and ferociousness, you never see our guys bursting through people and smashing people out of rucks its all very pedestrian. I’m sure the conditions had something to do with it but its not a unique phenomenon.

    It is difficult now to get any games to blood people. That used to be what the AIs were for now but they are too important so they started the summer tours but now they are too important. Why do they make the world cup draw so far in advance?

    1. Maybe so that ‘friendlies’ have a competitive element that was never the case in the past and meaning. Summer tests and autumn internationals now have an edge which is for the better of the sport. Second tier teams are now given meaningful matches where victory means ranking points which contribute the World Cup seeding.
      Maybe it was just as well that Scotland took their full team to Japan, given that both matches were proper test rugby. An A team would have come back with 2 losses.

  31. Thought provoking stuff 1.8t, you know who does smash through people – Cornell Du Preez.

    I’m not too sure we have that many players “to blood”.

    However Japan are the coming team & as Pbtf blogged above – Since 5/9/15 Japan have beaten Georgia , South Africa , Samoa and USA . Only Scotland have beaten them , 3 times ! Give the boys some credit – so maybe not as bad as it looked.

    1. Every time I see Magnus Bradbury play he busts through tackles. He could be in the frame in 3 years. I hope Ashe delivers on his early promise too as he is a good athlete, but who maybe needs a bit more dog.

    2. I’m not entirely convinced by du Preez, fine player that he is. He does indeed make a lot of yards, but he also makes some basic errors and takes poor options – the last couple of games of the pro 12 spring to mind. I think he would be tested at international level and found wanting.

      Do we need to bring in another project player in the back row anyway? With the following players already available – Strauss, Denton, Ashe, Barclay, Harley, Hardie, Watson, Fusaro, Cowan, Beatrice and with young lads like Ritchie, Bradbury and Smith coming through?

      1. I notice you fail to mention Wilson in that list. Not surprising as to my mind this was his last chance. Despite his great work rate he consistently flatters to deceive. I lost count of the number of turnovers he lost whether through handling errors or penalties. Admit he wasn’t the only one not able to catch and pass but unfortunately he stood out. At least Denton has a good game in three.

      2. Wasn’t intentional leaving out Wilson. Just goes to show how many options there are when you leave out a bloke who played the last 2 matches. I like Wilson, although he does drift out of games at Test level. If he can switch on for 80 minutes then he would be a handful for any opposing back row.

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