Scotland vs Japan RWC 2015 match report: Mark Bennett leads Scots to impressive victory over Springbok conquerors in one-sided affair

Scotland 45 Japan 10

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The Independent Online

The sun that rises must also set and Japan, bathed in celestial light since their epic victory over the Springboks last weekend, ended their follow-up match in something approaching complete darkness. But there is always another day tomorrow. 

More pertinently from the point of view of the Brave Blossoms and their high-calibre coaching team, there are nine days of rest, recuperation and reloading between now and their next match, against Samoa.

Despite losing yesterday by 35 points to the Scots, who were, by their distinctly un-Himalayan standards, unusually ruthless in maximising clear advantages in physical freshness and quality preparation time, Japan are still responsible for reducing their World Cup pool to an unholy mess. They were competitive enough for long enough here in Gloucester to suggest that when order is finally restored, they could yet find themselves fully involved in the qualification mix.

As Vern Cotter, the Scotland coach, was quick to indicate in the immediate aftermath of his side’s five-try, bonus-point victory, the team of the tournament to date are handsomely equipped to ask serious questions of their remaining opponents. “I wouldn’t say our victory was that convincing,” the New Zealander remarked. “There was a lot of pressure on the game for a long time because Japan are tough opponents: deft passers of the ball, very clever at changing angles, powerful yet good on their feet.”

Cotter was not being generous for the sake of it: he knew only too well that until the contest tilted and tipped towards Scotland in the space of 15 minutes at the start of the second half, Japan were well placed to build on that wholly unexpected triumph over South Africa. Even though the underdogs were clearly a notch down from the outset – their captain Michael Leitch, such a force against the Boks, fumbled a couple of Scottish restarts for no good reason, and there were sure signs of scrummaging fragility early on – only five points separated the sides at the break.

This was in no small measure down to the Japanese full-back Ayumu Goromaru, who pulled off a try-saving cover tackle for all the ages on the Scotland wing Tommy Seymour on the brink at half-time, and to the Tongan-born No 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi, who claimed the only touchdown of the opening period after the fiercest of line-out drives.

When the teams came back out, Mafi looked capable of winning the thing all on his own. Twice he ripped up the Scots with heavyweight runs that bordered on stampedes: while other back-rowers might trip the light fantastic in broken-field situations, this bloke was responsible for the breakages in the first place. 

Unfortunately, he suffered a serious injury during the second rampage and left the field on a stretcher. Two stretchers, in fact: one on top of the other.

“We hope this is a new injury,” Jones said when asked about Mafi’s condition. “He dislocated his hip eight months ago and made a remarkable recovery, so we’re praying this has nothing to do with that issue. 

“He’ll be a big loss to us if he’s gone from the tournament. Two years back he was playing second division university rugby: even now he’s played only five top-league games. He’s a rare talent.”

Mafi’s departure was a hammer blow to Japan, who, if they were to minimise the leg-deadening, spirit-sapping effects of fatigue, needed all the emotional sustenance they could find. Having lost their form back-rower, seen the wayward Goromaru hit the post with a penalty attempt that was some way short of testing and then leaked a try to Scotland from virtually the next phase of play, Leitch and his men lost something of their brio and even more of their self-belief.

John Hardie, the “Kilted Kiwi” from New Zealand who is still so new to the Scottish rugby scene, was the man who bagged the try, and no one could have been more deserving. The open-side flanker, already a standout figure in defence, kept an attacking move alive by flicking the ball infield tight to the left touchline and, when the recycled possession headed back in his direction, he finished decisively close to the flag.

Greig Laidlaw, shining in his role as organiser-in-chief at scrum-half, missed the wide-angled conversion, but he nailed pretty much everything else without batting an eyelid. And he had plenty of opportunity to brush up on his marksmanship as the Japanese ran out of puff: the centre Mark Bennett scored twice in 13 minutes, showing considerable footballing intelligence on both occasions, and there were further tries for Seymour and the outside-half Finn Russell.

If Laidlaw pocketed the man of the match gong in front of his home crowd – the Scotland captain moved south from Edinburgh for a tour of Premiership duty at the start of last season – Cotter was most keen to talk about Hardie’s contribution, perhaps because the decision to fast-track him into the side at the expense of the long-serving John Barclay caused consternation up Murrayfield way.

“I thought John was true to himself out there,” the coach said of his countryman. “He gave us a great work-rate, he was very effective in defence and he carried well in the wide parts of the field. He is strong, explosive, dynamic and tireless. And he needed to be.”

For all that, Cotter was acutely aware that it is now Scotland’s turn to play two hard, physical matches in the rugby equivalent of five minutes. “The short turnaround business is very difficult: I think Japan found it hard, and it’s the situation we’re now in ourselves,” he said ahead of this Sunday’s meeting with the United States in Leeds. “I’ve always said that we’ll need our whole squad over the course of the tournament.”

By logical extension, Cotter will have no choice but to field a large number of second-string players against the Americans – and Scotland are not exactly renowned for their strength in depth. There are many reasons why Japan, the new standard-bearers for rugby romance, are still in contention. The tournament schedule, which has already had its evil way with Eddie Jones’s men, is one of them.