We have had anticipation, excitement and world-class rugby. Japan 2019 has left nothing to the imagination, gifting rugby fans worldwide with a tournament destined for the history books. The recent fixture between Japan and Scotland was to be no different.
Storm Hagibis threatened the Scottish side with an automatic knock-out from the tournament. Having not earned enough points in previous matches, it was essential that Scotland beat the Japanese by eight or more points with four tries in hand. Needing a winning bonus point whilst denying Japan of a losing one, Scotland had work to do.
Japan kicked off at 11:45 am to a tearful, 72,000-strong crowd – a moment of silence followed the haunting national anthem, commemorating those lost over the weekend. To Japan, this match meant far more than a place in the quarter finals.
Five minutes in and the Scottish attack goes to ground. Finn Russell, from the rear of the ruck, steps back inside a fast, Japanese defensive line. Space affords him a sprint over the line to score. With a tidy finish by Greig Laidlaw, Scotland take an early seven-point lead. The Scots are looking strong.
Japan are not fussed by this early shape up of points and minutes later they see Kenki Fukuoka burning up the left touchline to deliver a superhuman offload to an untouchable Kotaro Matsushima. Five for him and two for Yu Tamura quickly balance the scoreboard.
Two minutes later and now Japan are delivering a lesson in forward excellence. Shota Horie makes the offload to Lappies Labuschagne and after an exchange in the pack, Keita Inagaki pushes over the line. Minute 26’ sees Japan call 14 to Scotland’s seven.
Japan’s exceptional discipline is now on show as a second missed penalty bears no influence on their performance.
Not a minute before the whistle calls half-time, Timothy Lafaele takes control in the left channel popping a grubber forward. With an awkward bounce, Fukuoka at full speed makes the reach, collects and flies past a disbelieving Stuart Hogg. Tamura lines up the conversion and makes it 21 for Japan.
Due to no particular fault of Scotland, Japan entered half time comfortably. The ‘tier two’ label they have been condescendingly branded with is certainly rubbing thin.
Suddenly, we have a game on our hands. Scotland recover their bite, draw Japan offside and kick to touch for the lineout. Their hope is short lived. Japan’s lightning defence forces the ball into open play. Fukuoka recovers it and takes to the pitch like tyres to asphalt. His run secures the bonus point and Tamura brings the Blossoms’ total to 28. Scotland are in trouble.
The ball is back in Scottish hands and a sly break from Jamie Ritchie forces him into an uncomfortable sidestep. Rolling his ankle, his support takes over and pushes the assault up to the five meter line. A simple pick and go from Willem Nel breaks through the white and red and a successful conversion from Russell makes 14. Scotland gasp for air.
With plenty of work still to do, Gregor Townsend opens the floodgates on the Scottish bench. With 36 points required to breach the pool stage, Brown, Dell, Gilchrist, Laidlaw, Nel and Seymour all take a seat for fresh legs.
Townsend’s replacements prove effective and the 55th minute sees a burst of energy from Scotland. George Horne battles up to the Japanese 22. A transition to Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray in unison takes it to the five. Zander Fagerson finishes it off. Russell continues his streak and brings Scotland to 21.
Japan enter defensive mode and as the clock ticks over, the opportunity for Scotland to make a miracle comeback drifts out of sight. The countdown from ten, likely audible worldwide, was met with heartache from a wholly defeated Scottish side. Fumiaki Tanaka’s boot sends the ball deep into the roaring crowd and with it, any doubt of Japanese talent – they are amongst world rugby’s elite. South Africa must show no restraint in their upcoming quarter final clash.
Image: Yumemi.K via Wikimedia Commons