These were very nearly the ratings that never were. It was hard to muster the enthusiasm for a second viewing of a Scottish performance that provided no enjoyment at all beyond the win at the final whistle. Hopes that the first test might have shaken off some rust and allowed the side to get used to the conditions and the tactics of their hosts were quickly dashed by a near carbon copy showing in Tokyo. A bit of distance from a frustrating Saturday morning has hopefully allowed for a more sanguine assessment of Scotland’s ninth win in sixteen games played in the last year.
Stuart Hogg – 5
His boot was crucial to the attempts to try and play the game in the right areas. At times though, pushing for extra yardage allowed Japan to play the ball quickly, much to Scotland’s disadvantage.
Tommy Seymour – 5
Made Scotland’s one and only clean break of the match (by contrast Japan made ten). Barely touched the ball outside of fielding kick offs. For the second week running his footballing skills betrayed his American rather than Irish roots!
Matt Scott – 6
Attacking opportunities were a distant dream but, in the absence of Alex Dunbar, he took on the role (very successfully) of fighting for ruck turnovers when Japan moved away from their forwards.
Peter Horne – 5
He might have thought when he moved to 10 after 57 minutes he could influence the closing stages. But Scotland only put the ball through the backs’ hands once in that final period and he was left as a peripheral figure.
Sean Maitland – 4
A game of two halves for Sleepy Sean. Very involved in the first half, although some imprecision won’t have helped his case to nail down a starting jersey. Could have stayed in the dressing room at half time (although not really his fault there was no ball to be seen on the Scottish wings).
Ruaridh Jackson – 4
Tried to take the ball to the line but the Japanese defence was up so quickly he barely had time to react. It may have been on a penalty advantage but the intercepted pass thrown in the first half suggests he will continue to make the kind of errors that can change games.
Henry Pyrgos – 4
Did his best Greig Laidlaw impression in the first half but it came off like a solid but uninspiring tribute act. Point off for a horrible interception yards from the Japanese line in the second period. Even allowing for the fact the Japanese backs were all offside (but not penalised – thanks for that Mr. Mitrea) he should have been able to adjust and keep possession.
Rory Sutherland – 5
Rory showed up better in the loose. Gordon Reid was a fraction more solid in the scrum. Unfortunately neither of them is Al Dickinson but at least there isn’t the vertiginous drop off to the back ups that there is at tighthead…
Stuart McInally – 4
Not a good day out for the man they call Rambo. A squint line out throw and a knock on killed two of Scotland’s attacks in the Japanese 22. Is he getting enough top level game time to really develop as a high class hooker?
Moray Low – 3
Couldn’t impose himself at the scrum and couldn’t get involved in the loose (the only Scottish starter not to touch the ball). This was a big opportunity to set out his stall as WP Nel’s backup but, just like Jon Welsh against the USA, he fluffed the audition.
Richie Gray – 6
There was a moment when it would have been great to see the big man ragdoll Amanaki Mafi into touch but, as with almost all his tackles, Richie just wanted to get to ground as fast as possible. Still, his defensive work rate was massive and he was a big contributor to keeping the Scottish line unbreached in the second half.
Jonny Gray – 6
Seemingly super human efforts have become the norm for the Glasgow captain so when he slips down to the level of of mere mortals it’s a bit of a concern. It’s been a long, long season though and he needs some rest.
Josh Strauss – 6
The only Scottish player to consistently get over the gain line despite the heavy traffic as the Japanese forwards frequently committed no-one at all to defensive rucks and focused on stifling the dark blues attacking ambitions.
John Barclay – 4
Lacked his usual linking play in attack and pretty much a non-factor winning turnovers or slowing the ball as the Japanese forwards showed some incredible efficiency at clearing out rucks when in possession.
Ryan Wilson – 5
A long way off his performance in the first test. The Japanese defence seemed to target him early on and he ended up being knocked backwards rather than providing the front foot ball of the previous week.
Fraser Brown – 5 may have done enough to edge past Stuart McInally – but neither player has shown anything to suggest anyone but Ross Ford will start the Autumn Tests.
Gordon Reid – 6. Maybe didn’t dominate the scrum the way Al Dickinson might have but deserves huge credit for giving nothing away at the set-piece and providing good energy around the park for his full shift after leaving his (Ayr) beach holiday.
WP Nel – 7. Dominant at the scrum (where he should probably have had at least 3 more penalties). He may be the most influential player in Scottish rugby right now.
Tim Swinson – game seemed to pass him by a little during a period of the match when (as John Beattie was keen to say over and over and over again) it was all Japan.
John Hardie – flung himself into proceedings with such vigour he ended up as joint top tackler despite playing less than half of the game.
Greig Laidlaw – see below.
Huw Jones – not the most auspicious day for a debut but he did win a hugely important turnover just a few metres from the Scottish try line with Japan looking almost certain to score.
Sean Lamont – was his 30 second cameo a final curtain call on a very long international career?
The ‘Official’ On Top Of The Moon Scot of the match was…WP Nel. A case could definitely be made for Greig Laidlaw and the impact he had on the team as a whole but in terms of individual performances WP stood out, transforming the Sottish scrum and putting in more tackles than any of the other Scottish front rowers.
Almost impossible to sum up wee Greig and his effect on the Scotland team in a sentence so here’s the extended assessment:
Greig’s new nickname must surely be ‘The Comfort Blanket’. There was little change in the style of play when he replaced Pyrgos at 9; with Scotland having just 2 multi-phase possessions in his 31 minutes on the pitch he wasn’t able to dictate in attack; he wasn’t directly influential on the defensive effort, making just one tackle. And yet, and yet…the whole team looked more comfortable and assured when he was on the pitch almost like there was a collective sigh of relief “Oh Greig’s here – we’re going to win this thing.”
There’s a lot of talk about marginal gains in sport – and here we had this writ large as Laidlaw was able to do almost everything just that fraction better than the man he replaced, meaning the sum total was a clear step up. Of course his kicking was flawless and this was likely to have been a major component in the psychological boost he gave his side. When you’re not playing well a clear gameplan to play for territory and force your opponent to make errors brings a clarity of purpose that was distinctly lacking. When lead by Pyrgos the side made 9 trips to the opposition 22 in 50 minutes (but did very little when they got there), in Laidlaw’s 30 minutes it was just the one visit – but the team were still far more efficient at accumulating points.
The question that will surely exercise Vern Cotter’s mind over the coming seasons (as it must have already) is can he make his side less reliant on the skipper? Greig has started 12 of the last 14 Tests for Scotland. In 9 of those games the replacement – whether it’s been Pyrgos or Hidalgo-Clyne has gone unused (and SHC only played 3 minutes against Wales). The coach’s approach to this surely has to change in the matches to come but it also needs players to grab their opportunities when they are presented to them and, most probably, a division of the duties that Laidlaw takes on so effectively – scrum-half, decision maker, kicker, captain. Other players in the squad need to stand up and be counted and not be content just to leave everything to the talented Mr. Laidlaw.