If Scotland are an aspirant Grand Slam-winning team – they were arguably just two penalties away from that in the spring, after all – Saturday’s 29-20 win over Japan looked far too close for comfort.
The Scots needed to kick a penalty at the end to settle their nerves against a Japanese side that refused to give up. Always mischievous, Finn Russell seemed to want to go for the corner when it was awarded with two minutes left.
He was “convinced” otherwise and later claimed he was just winding everyone up.
What Saturday did suggest is that the Scots need to be a bit more flexible, with playing styles and with referees. Given two vastly different opposing teams – you could hardly get more different than South Africa and Japan – and two different refereeing philosophies, they didn’t get themselves sorted quickly enough.
Japan surprised Scotland by playing from everywhere, showing the skill, speed and nerve to do it. However, as Gregor Townsend pointed out, there is no other top ranked team who will do that from their own half.
The refereeing issue is more acute. Townsend said he wasn’t concerned at the numbers the Scots gave up in the first half of both the last two games. But it was definitely a sign they took too long to get on the very different wavelengths of Angus Gardner and Brendan Pickerill.
Southern Hemisphere refs are back reffing Northern Hemisphere games again after Covid. Scotland need to do their homework on what their preferences are.
The autumn’s three wins carried Townsend’s personal record as Scotland head coach to 28 wins from 49 tests. Here’s his main impressions of the campaign:
Power game, breakdown improving, but not good enough vs South Africa
1= John Jeffrey – 11 (40 caps);
1= Derek White – 11 (41);
1= Stuart McInally – 11 (43);
4= Martin Leslie – 10 (37);
4= Ally Hogg – 10 (48). https://t.co/qhu9A0zLsS
— Kevin Millar (@topofthemoonGW) November 20, 2021
“We’ve shown that we still have ability to score tries out of nothing, in the South Africa and Tonga games.
“But we’ve also developed the power side of our game. We didn’t show it enough against South Africa but, against Japan, our scrum and maul were very good.
“Our work at the breakdown was also very good against Japan – and it had to improve, because it wasn’t good enough against South Africa.
“Spending the four weeks together, the players are learning from each other, learning from us as coaches. The players are showing more leadership, all of these things are improving.”
12 new caps and all looked test-ready
Congratulations on your Scotland debuts, Dylan Richardson and Javan Sebastian 👏
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) November 20, 2021
“What pleased me most was the reaction of players when they’ve been given opportunities. They look like they’ve grown when they’ve put a Scotland jersey on.
“Right from the Tonga game, when it was Luke Crosbie, Jamie Hodgson, Rufus McLean who played that day, right through to the guys coming off the bench against Japan.
“It’s really pleasing that the test match arena brings the best out of them.
“And that’s absolutely given us more depth, with players competing for starting positions. That (competition) may not come in the Six Nations. It may come not the summer tour or in the build-up to the World Cup.
“But we’ve got more players putting their hands up and making it more difficult to select a team.”
Door not closed to others
“There is a thread running through our teams, players who have been selected more regularly.
“But we’re going to cast our net more widely in the Six Nations, too, for guys who missed selection this time. Guys like Sean Maitland and WP Nel, we’re very aware that they can play at the highest level.
“This wasn’t a tournament where we needed to involve them, we wanted to look at other players.
“But if their form is consistent, as it has been this season, they’ll come into the mix for our strongest team.”
And reinforcements are coming…
🏉 𝐂𝐡𝐚𝐦𝐩𝐢𝐨𝐧𝐬𝐡𝐢𝐩 𝐓𝐫𝐲 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐃𝐚𝐲 🏉
From deep in their own half to scoring in the corner – @Scotlandteam are so dangerous on the counter attack!
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) December 23, 2020
“Jonny Gray will be back next week or the week after for Exeter. Cam Redpath is targeting the beginning of January, maybe before that because he feels he’s ahead of schedule.
“Fraser Brown is looking at being back in the next few weeks. We had better news on him this week.
“Scott Cummings came back against Japan and played really well, which was a bonus.
“We played six second rows during these tests. Jonny, Ben Toolis, Alex Craig and a few others would come into consideration if they’re back fit, as well.”