With Typhoon Hagibas having passed and the Japan v Scotland game being given the green light, the match itself lived up to the hype that had built up around it. It was a game that ebbed and flowed, with Scotland starting well, and scoring a try with their first and only flurry into the Japanese 22 in the first half. For the next 40 minutes, it was the proverbial one way traffic, with Scotland coming back in the last 30. It was a typical Scottish performance, some really good stuff, but some erroneous play and a lack of game plan structure, which they displayed against Ireland.
I don’t know what I feel about the overall campaign. In the two games that were going to be the toughest, they did not perform. Against Ireland they did not seem to have a Plan A, let alone a Plan B, and this was clear as Ireland restricted Scotland to three points, while scoring four tries and the bonus point. I’ve discussed the two questionable tries, but even then Ireland were by far the better team. Against Japan, they did have a game-plan (box kicking), but when early on it was clear that Japan were going to use their offload and handling skills whenever they had the ball, I do not understand why Gregor Townsend didn’t change the plan, to get some ball and a foot hold in the game. This was very similar to what happened at Twickenham, where giving England the ball through the box kick led to them scoring. It does question his ability to change game-plan mid match. Scotland have the players to have a variety of plans, but I feel they are not being given the freedom to show their skills to the maximum.
What also has become obvious (and has been for some years), is the porous state of the defence. They didn’t concede against Samoa and Russia, but they are not the top teams in World Rugby. Against the more inventive and powerful teams, Scotland are conceding too many tries to be competitive. Yes, they can score when they are on their A game (second half against England at Twickenham, and parts of the second half against Japan), but to win matches at the top echelon of the game, you need to be hard to beat.
I have discussed previously, my thoughts on allowing Vern Cotter to leave and put Townsend in the head coach role. This was a strange decision as they had waited over a year after Cotter being announced for him to start his role, and got Scotland to a ranking high of 5th. So to only allow him three years, and not extend his contract was peculiar, though I had heard (this was only rugby club talk), that it was Cotter that didn’t want to extend. The work that Cotter had put in to make Scotland a hard to beat, has been lost in the two years since he left for Montpellier. They were developing into a gnarling beast, that may not have been pleasant on the eye all the time, but any team that played Scotland knew they had to win the battle first.
If it was the decision of the SRU, I question the reason, as Scotland have gone backwards. A dream team would have been Cotter and Townsend. I don’t think that Townsend would have been happy to be an assistant, but his creativity with the stuffiness of Cotter would have Scotland in a more positive place. With the benefit of hindsight, I think the decision to promote Townsend so early in his career, has been detrimental for his development. If he had moved on from Glasgow and tried himself in France or England, he would have developed further and had to deal with setbacks in a less forgiving framework. He would hopefully developed a range of strategies, rather than the main one that he uses. This is very similar to when Frank Hadden was promoted from Edinburgh, with this being his only Professional head coach position.
This game-plan is like the Gregor Townsend of his playing days. He played best when he was off the cuff. This is what his charges do. But when there is a structure, it always appeared so obvious.
Going back to the Japan game, Scotland got tackled behind the gain line far too often, with what appeared to be the telegraphed moves. This is not to take away anything from Japan, who were excellent in everything they did. Their passing was quick, accurate and crisp, giving Scotland no time to make the first up tackles. They always had players looking for the off-load and their movement was first rate. They swapped the angle of attack so well and so often, that Scotland found it hard to defend against. They played the way we teach youngsters to do when they start to play the game. Admittedly, they have been together for 200 plus days, and that has developed their near telepathic understanding, but the ability to do it under pressure is superb. This is where all the people saying that Japan must get more tier one exposure. When you consider that the Japanese only made 28 tackles in the first half, this showed that the Scottish game-plan needed changing. I thought that after the second ten minutes, when it became apparent that the Japanese plan was to run it, Scotland should have changed.
The key to the outcome, was Scotland conceding the tries either side of half time. If they had only conceded one of them, I think the result would have been different and this may have been a different blog. After the Bonus Point try, Scotland started playing with the ball, and were creating opportunities, though the same old frailties of turnovers, and errors was evident. After the Twickenham turnaround earlier in the year, Finn Russell said they changed the game-plan through a heated discussion and inferred that the players threw the game-plan out of the window, and played with more freedom. It did look like they did the same against Japan, but with not as much success, but they were more potent in attack.
Whether Townsend is the man to make the next step forward is open to debate, but I think he will get at least the 6Nations to try and resolve the woes that have beset his time as Scotland head coach.
Japan at this World Cup is what Scotland aspire to be, a quick offloading team that creates space for their strike runners and always having options. This I think will become most major nations drive, as the change to the tackle laws will increase the opportunity to off load, and make rucks quicker as the tackle will not be as able to flop on the ball. If Scotland want to get to that level, they need a more adaptive game-plan that focuses on their strengths and potentially go back to a quick ruck game, as well as making it difficult to score tries against. Not much to work on then.