Rugby World Cup: Japan v Scotland.

I needed a walk. You? After a wonderfully sapping game, watched from the safe distance of a zillion miles – safe cos storm, safe cos presumably yet more exhausting in Yokohama – a blissful but blustery gathering yomp. Time to think a bit.

I think, on reflection, it was remarkable both for being unimaginably, laudably entertaining and for being everything we imagined, in the laudable-entertainment department. Crazily predictable; wildly, culturally generous and simultaneously massively competitive.

Let’s go into a brief credit-frenzy; to players and coaches from both sides; to the officials (actually) who we barely noticed, right(?)… and to Japan. This was a game that might be a symbol, a touchstone, a model for how we might want elite international sport to be.

The home nation’s coach – inevitably not a native – has continued and now surpassed the work of his predecessors (and maybe we should be offering some appreciation here, to the erm, generally-much-loved Eddie Jones), through producing a team that play fabulous rugby. Sure they are ridiculous athletes but it’s the culture of endlessly bold, swift re-cycling and re-darting that the world is coming to love.

Mr Joseph and his colleagues are doing an extraordinary job, in circumstances of relative under-resource, to sustain expansive sport to such a peak. Four wins in the tournament, with South Africa to come.

Can they go further? As I say below, this may depend on the medium-joyless stuff: robustness, physicality, discipline under pressure from genuinely elite-level competition.

The sharpest amongst you may have noted a derogatory implication in the last sentence – towards Scotland. Bit cruel, after that? Yes.

However, despite a magnificent contribution to a sumptuous contest, Townsend’s side remain, in the main, a notch down on their comrades in Tier One. No disgrace; issues of resource are key here, too. *And yet*, as the Japanese example may be showing, brilliant, streetwise, hard-nosed coaching might be the thing that resolves this.

An abstract and possibly insulting thought but would a Gatland (or similar) at the helm have left any Scotland side of the past several years more durable? And if so – or even if not – why has the perennial lack of durability not been attended to? (Of course in saying this I appreciate that the initial difficulty is in attracting a Gatland to Scotland). 

Japan have an extraordinary flow about them. But they are also finding once, twice, against Tier One opposition, the resilience to come through. I for one hope they find it again in the quarter-finals.

Here’s my live report:

 

Rarely have the natural world and the explosively dramatic world of elite sport been in such sympathy. Am I the only one thinking this can’t be a coincidence?

Skies having gone from steamy-blue to steely-angry. Seas having turned tempestuous as the moment of *ultimate drama* approached. It’s proof, surely, that there is a god – and that she’s as foamtastically mad about rugby as the rest of us.

O-kaaaay, it may be unwise to jest when lives have been lost and property devastated: no argument. But has there not been something wondrous (as well as terrifying and humbling and god-awful) about the barrelling-in to the moment, here? That moment being Japan, the entertaining and engaging hosts, versus Scotland.

Hitchcockian. Busby-Berkleyian. Spielbergian. The awesome, extravagant, cinematic, inevitable whirlwind-to-stilled-pondness of it all could barely be imagined or surpassed. Japan v Scotland, with everything upon it; with hugely adored hosts needing only to maintain their inspiration. (Only). With the visiting, sometime-faltering Tier Oners surely ripe for exposure.

The general excellence – contingency plans notwithstanding – of this Rugby World Cup, in terms of hosting, support and that crucial, generous buying-in from the locals, has rather cruelly left an often warmly-regarded Scotland isolated. The brutal truth may be evidenced in their miraculously-contrasting efforts against a very robust Ireland side.

Scotland, on that occasion, were on the feeble side of crap; Japan were exhilaratingly fearless, imaginative and, critically, found a way to sustain a level that the watching universe could barely believe. It was a remarkable event.

Importantly, this has drawn that aforementioned universe to the side of the home nation. Neutrals everywhere, the sort of folks who might often find themselves bellowing encouragement telly-wards for a Stuart Hogg gambol, will be fixated on Tupou and Lafaele and co.

Broadly, this is surely wonderful? Magnificently testing for the Scots –  who may yet relish that – but with the drama spiralling to a peak (any minute!) it’s hard to recall a fixture more loaded with romance. The players are walking out…

“This feels very, very special”. So goes the commentary. A breathless start – what else? Innovation from Japan, from the kick-off but then Scotland get that shot-in-arm, the turnover. Phases, early, from the hosts.

A counter. Russell cross-kicks and maybe the wing should score… but no. Japan turn that over before losing possession. Suddenly things open up for Russell and (rather easily) he’s in. A seven pointer, slightly against the early grain but welcome, indeed, for Scotland and maybe perfect, for the setting up of the game.

There follows a period of predictably high-intensity ebb and flow before the home side gain a penalty some 40 metres out but straightish. Eventually, Tamura pushes it slightly – or rather fails to draw it back sufficiently.

It matters little. A racing, tumbling offload after some more bustling hands puts the rapid Matsushima in, almost under the posts. Tamura converts and we are level at 7-7, after 20 minutes. Great start, alround.

A delay as Koo is withdrawn, with rib damage, pre an important scrum 25 metres from the Japanese line. The poor lad (Koo) looks in tears. He may be emotionally restored somewhat, by the award of a penalty, to his comrades: looked a lottery, that one.

Twenty-five minutes in and again, the irresistible energy and sheer fizz of the home side pays. Outstanding period of possession-at-pace, again with fearless, athletic and sometimes almost balletic off-loading… and they score. Deserved, for all that enterprise and all that raw courage. 14-7, Inagaki having gone under those sticks.

Long look at a tackle from Gray, with the current context possibly conspiring against him and towards a yellow. Viewed as innocent; rightly, I reckon (at first look), because of the pace around the incident and lack of malice. We go on, exhaustingly.

Haven’t seen possession stats. On 33 minutes you’d have the hosts ahead on merit but hard to judge things with equanimity when the over-riding sense is of a whole-nation cauldron seething. Parity at the scrums, relatively but few of them.

Then two penalties conceded by Dell, for creeping. The Scotland prop looks mystified; he is a tad fortunate that the penalty is missed. However, again the home side brush the disappointment away. Lafaele links through skilfully and Fukuoka electrifyingly gathers before racing through. Fever pitch, welcome.

With the conversion completed, Japan have surged ahead, both in the game and in those calculations around it. Three tries, already. 21-7. Bonus point beckoning, worryingly early from the Scots’ point of view. Perhaps more significantly, the nature of the Brave Blossom’s performance is going to be seriously challenging Townsend’s pep-talk right now.

Japan are playing with imagination and relentless pace. They recycle and off-load with no fear of an error or interception. Absolutely central to their effort is the belief that this ambition will pay. And it looks like it will. And it deserves to. This is great coaching, great ‘culture’ and it’s why most of the world is smiling alongside them. Fantastic stuff..

The flip side is that Scotland – for all their open, attacking rugby over recent years – may again get ‘found out’, here. Yes there are questions about (their own) limited resources but they are rushing headlong into a further enquiry into the legitimacy of their Tier One status. Or they may be. In short, Japan are outplaying them, largely: *just in* possession stats. 78% for the home side, first half!

WOW. Fukuoka is in, after yet more rampaging defence, in midfield. The winger is suddenly bursting into space… and it’s another seven-pointer. The game may be gone one minute into the second period, as the hosts already have a bonus point for that fourth try. Sensational barely covers this, now.

With the crowd utterly ecstatic, and that emotion plainly reciprocated on the pitch, we’re into something extraordinary again. The commentary on ITV understandably relating this to Barbarian-style rugby. If this continues folks will be wondering if Japan can win the bloody tournament!

*Takes deep breath*. It’s true that when they’re going like this, Japan have something of the All Blacks about them. But if the real world still exists, I think it may remind us, in time, that the likes of the All Blacks (and possibly Wales, South Africa and England) *may* prove durable to a higher level. Perhaps.

Scotland respond. Nel rumbles and reaches to get in, in front. Laidlaw can’t miss and doesn’t. We have a period where the visitors get a real run. Russell and Hogg flicker.

The game is wild. Cummings roars forward, Gray rolls to off-load and Fagerson, astonishingly, is also in! The game – which seemed destined for glory a week or more out – is all of that. 28-21, after 55 minutes. Incredible that suddenly Japan need some possession.

Scotland have to chase and open up and of course this has risks. They ring the changes from the bench and resist a flurry of attacks. (It’s a horrid cliche but) it does seem that the next try is critical as we approach the hour.

Play is in midfield – a rarity. Japan maintain the high-octane approach but Scotland turn over before attacking from their own 22: no option. There is a sniff but the ball bounces unkindly. The pace of the game is staggering: those of us watching almost need a scrum or two, to gather in – unbeleeeeevably selfish of the players to deny us that.

The first sign of animosity. Harris has battered into two defenders, legitimately, but in the ensuing ruck, the Japanese have drawn a penalty. Verbals exchanged after the tectonic physical contacts: Richie has a word with Tamura. We go on.

The fly-half kicks, ‘within himself’ for touch, safely: a rare moment of un-ambition. Scotland re-gain possession but then are almost intercepted when again launching from deep.

We hit 70 minutes, with Scotland needing to win this *and deny Japan that second bonus point*. I think. But maybe don’t trust either me or anyone else, until this storm is over…

I’m not going to be the fella who uses the word b*a*e to describe Scotland. Is courageous better? They have certainly been that, in this second half – both adventurous and powerfully resolute. They win a pen but must kick for the line-out, ten metres out. No joy but then pressure creates a near-fumble and a Scotland scrum five out.

They recycle and challenge and burst but the hosts can resist again. We go right across the park before Japan turn over. The roar builds.

Death rites, for Scotland as the finals plays are executed – exhaustedly but with just enough control. We’re into the reddest, noisiest, most spent post-eighty minutes that you could conjure up. A magical day is over as the ball is hoofed into touch. 28-21. Heroically entertaining sport. Japan through.

 

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