Scotland kick off their Autumn International series against Japan on Saturday, and although it may not be the biggest draw of the November matches, Japan are sure to present a real threat to a Scotland squad that hasn’t reached full speed yet. An injury-ravaged Scottish team had a less than average summer with a loss to Samoa, a last-gasp win over Italy and a plucky display against South Africa that still ended in defeat. Japan on the other hand played Wales which resulted in a win and a loss, and just last week put in a solid display against a weakened New Zealand team, although the scoreline may not suggest it.
The Scots have named a large group for the upcoming series with 41 players training under Scott Johnson and his staff. 18, quite rightly, are from Glasgow Warriors who are impressing in the PRO12 this season, and five players are uncapped so it’s easy to see that Johnson is picking on club form while keeping an eye on the future. The major talking point though is the fact that two definite starters are out injured – Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg with leg and wrist injuries respectively – and also the fact that the influential Richie Gray has been left on the bench.
Tommy Seymour picks up his third cap on the wing and this means that Sean Maitland has been shifted to fullback – not his preferred position but one that he should be more than comfortable in. Johnson has chosen the reliable half back pairing of Greig Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson so it’s safe to assume that Scotland will not be choosing to run the ball from all angles and will look to play a more familiar tactical game.
Elsewhere, club combinations look to have been a factor with the Warriors’ Ali Kellock and Tim Swinson in the engine room, and the talented Matt Scott and Nick De Luca in the centre, both of whom play for Edinburgh. There are no real shocks in the match-day squad and the team looks to have been picked on the respect that the Japanese deserve.
The majority of Japanese players are relatively unknown here in Europe, their most recognisable face being Fumiaki Tanaka who plays scrum-half for the Highlanders. Hooker Shota Horie also plays Super Rugby for the Melbourne Rebels, and Australian rugby league international Craig Wing is a regular fixture for the Brave Blossoms after switching codes in 2009.
Encouragingly, Japan’s set pieces were solid during last week’s defeat to New Zealand although the same cannot be said about their handling; it was sloppy and the Japanese backs panicked when put under pressure. They looked impressive at the breakdown, however, especially flankers Hendrik Tui and Michael Broadhurst, and it will be interesting to see if they keep the ball tight this week rather than feed their backs.
All eyes on
Aside from Stuart Hogg and the Gray brothers, Matt Scott has the potential to be one of the more talented players to come out of Scotland in his generation. He is a hard hitting centre but also has the nous and ability of a playmaker from his time spent at fly-half, and his role on Saturday will probably be to break the Japanese defence and either set up a platform for quick ball or to feed the ball out to the wings himself.
At 5ft 5’ and under 12 stone, Fumiaki Tanaka is the smallest player in the history of Super Rugby but don’t let his stature fool you; he controls the forwards well, has a nice distribution pattern and has the ability to snipe around the fringes when the opposition tire or get lazy. Scotland are going to have to keep their guards in at the breakdown until the ball has definitely left the scrum-half’s hands.
Head to head: Kelly Brown v Michael Broadhurst
The battle of the breakdown will play a huge part in this game; Japan will be looking to starve Scotland of the ball so that they are unable to play, so the Scots will look to recycle quick ball as soon as they can. Michael Broadhurst spoiled New Zealand’s party a bit last week by making a real nuisance of himself around the rucks so it will be up to captain Kelly Brown – back in the squad after injury cut short his summer tour – to keep the kiwi-born flanker quiet. Both players are known for their hard work ethic but it is worth considering that Brown is not an out-and-out seven, so if he is struggling, expect John Barclay to come on at some point.
Japan will present a tougher challenge to Scotland than most people think – they are after all 15th in the IRB rankings – but just like against New Zealand, they will start to tire in the last quarter of the game and their bench has less of an impact that Scotland’s does. Expect a sloppy game, especially if the weather conditions are bad, but if Scotland can get their backs going, it should be easy enough. Scotland by 20.
By Calum Gillon (@C_Gillon)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images