IT WAS a sober-looking coach and captain who faced the media after yesterday’s 45-10 victory over Japan but at least “Stern” Vern Cotter had five precious World Cup points in his pocket from Scotland’s opening match.
To be picky, he also has plenty to work on before the Scots face the USA on Sunday.
Scotland scored five tries and conceded just one but it could have been more, especially as winger Tommy Seymour’s interception try was probably a 14-point turnaround for the Scots, who were under severe pressure at the time.
While Cotter’s Japanese counterpart Eddie Jones refused to blame fatigue on his team’s late collapse, he might have been the only one at Kingsholm Stadium to do so. Japan’s defence was rock solid for 60-odd minutes but the dam finally broke in the final 20 minutes after Japan had matched the Scots blow for blow.
Captain Greig Laidlaw said: “I did feel they were tiring. I felt we had them at half-time, to be honest. Credit to them for holding out. They were starting to blow and we were putting them under pressure. The message from Vern [at half-time] was ‘don’t panic, hold the ball’. We had them fitness wise. This is the fittest Scotland team I’ve seen for a long, long time. We believe we’re in a good place, fitness-wise.”
While Japan struggled with a four-day turnaround from their historic win over South Africa, it is now Scotland’s turn to test their strength and conditioning as they take on the American Eagles in Leeds on Sunday.
If yesterday’s match is anything to go by, Cotter will make a few changes to freshen things up.
“The four-day turnaround will be tough,” said the Kiwi. “I think Japan found it hard, we’re in that situation now. We will be focusing on recovering, regenerating energy levels, getting ready for a physical team who have had a week to prepare. We will need the 31 players. There are still 31 standing, ready to put their hands up for this weekend. I’m sure we’ll have some bumps and bruises we haven’t seen.”
Cotter declared himself satisfied, but he must be concerned at “losing” the middle section of the match, even if Japan didn’t make their superiority count on the scoreboard.
“They are a good team and they were getting over the advantage line,” Cotter conceded. “They are very powerful but good on their feet as well. They move the ball quickly from zone to zone. We found ourselves getting knocked back on our feet in the first half. So it was nice to get them four or five times close to our line and not let them score. That’s a good start, we’re happy with the determination we showed.”
Four first-half penalties from the boot of Laidlaw had given gave the Scots an early lead before they grabbed five tries in the final 32 minutes with centre Mark Bennett bagging a brace in the space of 14 minutes.
The Scotland skipper got the man-of-the match gong but David Denton, Matt Scott and John Hardie were in the thick of the action throughout, especially in the backs-to-the-wall defence in the middle of the match.
Oddly enough, the Scots looked a little leaden-footed when they played route-one rugby through the forwards but they posed a constant danger out wide even if the blue shirts had to wait to the final half hour before filling their boots. With the bonus point secured the Scots now top Pool B.
The final score flattered the winners as this game was anyone’s up to the final quarter when two things undermined the Japanese efforts. The first was the loss of influential No.8 Naki Mafi, who was carted off ten minutes into the second half and, possibly even more important, was that four-day turnaround since defeating the Springboks because fatigue was at the heart of Japan’s late collapse.
Scotland got off to the perfect start, Finn Russell capitalising on turnover ball, kicked deep and Stuart Hogg harried Kotaro Matsushima into touch for an early attacking lineout. The Japanese infringed and Laidlaw earned the first three of his 20 points with just two minutes on the clock. When he repeated the same trick on the ten-minute mark the Scots were 6-0 to the good, Japan had hardly touched the ball and everything was going swimmingly, which is when Japan woke up.
They bossed the final 20 minutes of the first half and the opening ten of the second, coming within two points of the Scots and giving them any number of problems.
The muscular No.8 Mafi scored the opening try from a five metres lineout 15 minutes into the game. Japan tried the same tactic again but, while the Scots stopped them at source, still the Asians dominated the second quarter even if they had little effect on the scoreboard which was stuck stubbornly on 12-7 after two more Laidlaw kicks.
Winger Matsushima spent ten minutes in the cooler, not that you would have noticed, with all the action now taking place inside the Scots’ half of the field.
What will worry defence coach Matt Taylor is the ease with which the red-and-white jerseys made inroads into the Scottish line thanks to the speed of delivery and the canny angles they picked. As soon as Japan put pace on the ball the Scots found themselves backpeddling, stretched and stressed, players calling for reinforcements with another red and white wave about to break.
When the Scots did clear their lines the Japanese were back knocking on their try-line just a few plays later. In one attack in the shadow of the Scottish posts Mafi went over the top in an effort to grab his second score.
While under the cosh the set piece rescued the Scots more than once, particularly the scrum where they milked penalties remorselessly.
Japan started the second half like men possessed when Mafi twice made his muscular presence felt. Only some sharp work by the covering Russell saved Scotland’s blushes on the first occasion and Hogg did the needful in defence on the second but the Scots looked ripe for the taking when Ayumu Goromaru narrowed the gap to just 12-10 after Matt Scott was lured offside.
It proved to be Mafi’s last contribution as he was stretchered off the field with a leg injury that might have gone some way to determining this result.
Just when it looked like Japan would claim another major scalp, the floodgates opened at the other end as the four-day turnaround finally took its toll on some bruised and battered bodies and the Scots ran in five unanswered tries.
Hardie scored the first crucial, five pointer after the best move of the match. The Scots used the inside ball to open the Japanese defence, Hardie realised he was being tackled into touch and flipped the ball out the back. It fell nicely to Scott, who fed Hogg who was held on the line. Finally, Laidlaw fed Hardie who had remained on the left wing and the flanker squeezed into the corner.
Scotland went to sleep at the restart, let the ball bounce and put themselves under all sorts of pressure as a result. Not long after, Goromaru was lining up another kick only this one bounced off the woodwork and the Scots scored just minutes later after Hogg had sliced the Japanese defence wide open and Bennett took an inside pass from Laidlaw to scoot under the sticks.
Eight minutes later, Japan were threatening and Seymour again intercepted what looked like a scoring pass and went the length of the field. He was followed over the Japanese line by Bennett and Russell in quick succession as the Japanese finished this game on their knees.