RWC2019 Match 40: Japan Scotland
What did your Uncle Ned tell you back on 4 January?
The last pool match will be the best pool match.
Scotland’s advantages are that they have a long history of playing Tier 1 teams, they have a smart coach, some good-ish players, and they can play with heart.
Japan’s advantages are that they are playing at home, and they have been targetting this one match for ten plus years. They want to be in the quarter finals like you would not believe, and they know that if they get there, then anything is possible. (Not probable, no: but possible.)
But this match, this match, is going to be out of sight. All or nothing, go big or go home, glory or despair.
Scotland go home with an excess baggage of despair.
Japan have the glory. However much further they go in this tournament, they have raised the roof with this match.
The set up was perfect: three teams were in the running to be one of the two qualifiers from Pool A depending on the result. The mathematics were a little complicated, but basically Scotland had to win, and win with four clear match points over Japan.
And the match was happening the day after Typhoon Hagibis had swept through, dumping tonnes of water on and around the stadium. And the game was under threat of cancellation right up to the late morning of the day itself: a threat of cancellation which had drawn from the Scotland Rugby Chief Executive an wildly unwise threat of legal action, as well as broad hints of chicanery that the Japanese didn’t want to play the match to assure themselves of a quarter-final
As the excellent Andy Bull in the Guardian explained, that latter was an absolute canard:
Officials slept in the stadium on Saturday night, while the typhoon blew outside, so they could start assessing the damage the minute it stopped. At dawn the repair crews came in, and started pumping the floodwater out of the dressing room, where it was an inch deep, while the fire-service triple-checked all the electrics. Later they hosed down the pitch, to clear off the mud and debris. Meanwhile the organising committee were coordinating with the government and regional authorities, with all three emergency services, the water authorities, the road authorities, the train and bus companies, trying to untangle a cat’s cradle of complications.
In Japan all the talk has been about how this World Cup is about omotenashi, Japanese hospitality. The word doesn’t exactly translate, but, in the sketchy understanding I have of it after four weeks here, it’s about doing more than your very best to please your guest.
But this was several steps further again, well beyond what anyone could have expected. Which might be why so many people got it all so wrong in the days before the match. Why they imagined that Japan wanted to have this match cancelled, that they would rather have been awarded the draw than face the Scots, a team against whom they had only ever lost. They even suggested it was all part of some grand conspiracy to hobble the Scots.
The chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, Mark Dodson, got it all wrong too. Dodson let fly about how the SRU had taken legal advice, raged how he wasn’t going to let his team be “collateral damage”. It was an embarrassingly wild misreading of what’s been going on here, of the mood among the Japanese, and how determined they were to play, and to win, this game.
All that pre-game emotion threatened to unseat Japan when the match finally began: the Scottish fly-half Finn Russell skipping through some skittish defence at 6 minutes to score underneath the posts.
And then Japan got their mojo on: three well constructed tries in the first half, another just after halftime by ripping the ball away from a Scottish attacker, all converted. At 28-7 Japan were on their way … whoops, hold on a minute.
Because Scotland to their credit came roaring back with converted tries at 49 and 54 minutes: 28-21.
Every mathematised fan knew the equation now: Scotland had to win by 8 or more points, so they needed to score 15 points in the last 15 minutes.
And they tried and tried and tried some more, but the exhausted Japanese defence kept making tackles, and getting up, and made some more.
What a great game. The best pool match of them all, just as Uncle Ned promised.