The quick departure of loosehead prop Al Dickinson provided early misery for Vern Cotter in the Toyota Stadium, although joy for Rory Sutherland who must have been champing at the bit for an extended run.
A great attacking counter from Japan ended with hooker Shota Horie under the posts and served up a warning of the intent to offload that Japan possessed, picking Scotland to pieces pretty easily after some half-hearted tackling from the Scotland midfield. Duncan Taylor won’t enjoy watching that one back.
With the ball it was an unsettled start, with lineouts going awry and some inaccurate kicks. There was a promising break from Matt Scott carelessly flung backwards when he was tackled – as if Scotland were 7 behind in the last ten minutes of a Six Nations match, rather than in the first quarter of their first international game together since March…
As usual, captain Greig Laidlaw kept Scotland in the hunt with three early penalties chipping them into the lead.
Despite a scoreboard deficit, Japan were bossing the breakdown and the Scots struggled to build any sort of momentum even with a massive share of the possession, save for a strong ten minute spell between 20-30mins where some furious counter rucking and quick ball saw Scotland make some good breaks and get into the Japanese 22. Sadly the result was a long range penalty for Yu Tamura when John Hardie blocked a defender trying to open a hole for Stuart Hogg.
Japan played at high tempo, and were quick over the ball in defence and quick to shift the point of focus in attack. At the end of their season, Scotland were sluggish to the breakdown even on a hard pitch, with Laidlaw often late to the breakdown because of the speed with which his ball carriers were having to place the ball away from Japanese tacklers.
The penalty count was in Scotland’s favour though and things continued in that vein as Henrik Tui was yellow carded for offside during a Scottish maul, but Jackson’s speculative kick was too long to be threatening.
Even lineout drives featuring two extra centres and Damien Hoyland were ably parried by Japan, and it almost seemed like the ref was the only one seeing it Scotland’s way. There were a lot of penalties whenever Scotland got their set piece going.
Japan were perhaps unlucky in terms of the match to go another man down after Rikiya Matsuda batted down the ball as Hogg made a final pass to Seymour. However a penalty try and a yellow card was the correct call from referee O’ Keefe and gave Scotland a chance to put it to bed early in the second half, if they had the nerve.
Half-time: Japan 10-16 Scotland
Scotland came out rapidly, with Seymour snaffling the kickoff then Jackson putting a much better cross-kick in in for Hoyland, who had an assured debut but would have loved to make it a try. Again though the penalty advantage – created by Nel and Laidlaw guddling at the back of a ruck enough to make the Japanese player at his feet look guilty of interference.
The pack stepped up with the short range carries though and WP Nel bundled though the bodies to get the try.
The pack almost had another but for a misunderstanding at a 5m lineout between McInally and Wilson. McInally perhaps still finding his way at that particular set-piece, and he was replaced by Fraser Brown on 47mins.
On the hour mark Japan finally woke up with some great offloading and a win still not that far out of sight, but when they kicked it to Hogg he finally had a good run of his own, assisted by Sean Maitland and only the touch line forced the move to break down. Laidlaw kicked another penalty as discipline cost Japan their momentum again.
It wasn’t the greatest test match ever for the mass of home fans who had turned out, as both sides never really got going with Japan a big drop off from their World Cup form. The entertainment factor wasn’t helped by Laidlaw marshalling a dull spell of keep ball while going nowhere that was designed to run out the final minutes on the clock until the hooter went and he could boot Japan out of their misery.
A test win under their belts notwithstanding, Scotland will need to massively improve their speed of start and accuracy at the lineout if they want to become the sort of team that can emulate the Southern hemisphere tour heroics of England and Ireland.
SRBlog Man of the Match: no standout performers for Scotland, but once again the highlights were in the front row. Rory Sutherland had a strong game when he came on very early as a replacement, carrying hard and assisting the Scottish dominance in the scrum and can be pleased with his efforts.