It was all about counting the days. For five of them after England’s opening night at Twickenham, Scotland waited, presumably wishing the days were shorter. Time drags when you have yet to play a game. The four days that Japan were given after shaking the old rugby order to its very core in Brighton must have passed all too quickly. When you are trying to patch up bruised bodies, the clock spins. Four days is a ludicrously short gap between international matches. The debate has been sparked before by other islands in the Pacific – by Samoa at the last World Cup – but nothing has changed. This was unfair on Japan.
Yet they had a chance as long as Amanaki Lelei Mafi was on the field. Perhaps the No8 was not as tired as his team-mates, having done slightly less than a whole half against South Africa. He made a mark in Brighton, delivering the pass for Japan’s winning try. Here he was on from the start and was more imposing keeping the ball to himself. He scored from the driving maul that began with a clever change of focus after a lineout won by Michael Broadhurst. The one wing forward lowered it to Michael Leitch, the other, before the last of the back row steered the drive over the line.
Scotland at this stage were nibbling away, notching up the penalties – four of them as Japan gave away as many penalties in a quarter as they conceded in the entire match against South Africa. They were particularly penalised by the referee, John Lacey, at the scrum, the set piece that had not budged in Brighton. What a difference four days make.
It was not just the scrummage that was less bountiful for Japan. The Scotland defence may have yielded to the one driving maul but in general they were much more organised and aggressive into the tackle. Japan ran their angles and lines and tried their inside flips but Scotland had them read. Even the more frantic scrambled defence of the Scots was more effective, holding out as Japan hammered away on their line. Mafi tried an extravagant dive over a ruck, not his best decision at the end of the first half.
Whatever he decided at the interval – or whatever the coach, Eddie Jones, drummed into him – it worked a treat at the start of the second. Mafi emerged from a maul and set off on a long winding run that nearly produced a try. All that happened in the end was an uncomfortable twist to his knee. A minute later he was off again – on a run, that is, claiming an overthrow at a Scotland lineout and storming the line. As he was brought down, his knee twisted again beneath him and that was that, the end of Japan’s main strike runner. He left on a stretcher as Ayumu Goromaru prepared to kick the penalty that resulted. They were Japan’s last points. The rest of the game, 36 minutes of it, were dominated by Scotland. Finn Russell grew in authority and impudence, delivering a one-handed, back-handed pass behind the back of his tackler to Matt Scott. The outside half scored a try, showing agility and strength on his way to the line.
Mark Bennett finished with aplomb for his two tries. Stuart Hogg covered more attacking yards from full-back, while Tommy Seymour went the length after intercepting a pass. Scotland galloped to a bonus point, no mean feat given the precarious state of their control when Mafi departed.
Japan ended at Gloucester as they had at Brighton, going for a try, the difference being that this was a long way from a fairytale ending. The game was lost and the try would not come. They went close, only for the replay (requested by the referee) to reveal a loss of control just short of the line. What a turnaround in four days.
And what a start for Scotland. In their five-day wait they had seen the nature of this beginning to their campaign change completely. What had once been no more perilous than a teasing opener against a side to whom they had not lost in four meetings was suddenly fraught with danger. Being the next victim of the team of the moment was not how they would have liked to see the billing.
This now had the stress of an England-Fiji; the potential for physical damage, like a Wales-Uruguay. Scotland were unsurprisingly cautious in their approach, more intent on containment than making any grand opening declaration of their own. To progress from justifiable concern to bonus-point domination made it an eminently satisfactory late entry into the World Cup.
Japan and their followers, meanwhile, looked more dejected by this defeat than they might have done in normal circumstances but they have created an abnormal experience for themselves. There was to be no repeat of the great day in Brighton and it hurt all the more. Now at least they can rest and prepare over 10 days for the other victims of a compressed schedule, Samoa. Japan have earned a break.