By Greg Stutchbury
TOKYO (Reuters) – Gregor Townsend had hoped Scotland’s up-tempo brand of rugby would carry them into the knockout stage of the World Cup but their campaign was undone by one side who slowed them to walking pace and another who actually played even faster.
Scotland’s 28-21 loss to Japan at a heaving Yokohama Stadium on Sunday, less than 24 hours after a devastating typhoon had struck the region, saw them fail to advance from the pool stage for the second time in nine World Cup tournaments.
A plodding defeat to Ireland in their opener and a spirited loss to a vibrant Japan bookended their tournament, and while Townsend was bitterly disappointed to be going home he tipped his cap to the ‘Brave Blossoms’.
“They play a really fast game,” he said. “They have some really good players. They have some excellent ball carriers mixed in with some real workers and some in the backline with real pace who have the confidence to try things.”
The Scots came into the World Cup on the back of a disappointing Six Nations where they won just one game, though they did take confidence from an incredible comeback against England in March.
Scotland trailed 31-0 before fighting back to score six tries and stood on the brink of a famous victory before George Ford’s converted try deep in stoppage time snatched a 38-38 draw at Twickenham.
Grouped with Ireland, Japan, Russia and Samoa in Pool A, Scotland were expected to finish runner-up at worst, though Townsend thought if they could win all the big moments against the Irish they could upset Joe Schmidt’s side.
But Scotland failed to win any big moment or take any opportunities that came their way as Ireland ground out a 27-3 victory that knocked the stuffing out of the Scots and their fans.
Townsend said after the loss that they needed to play their best in their next three games if they were to avoid the same fate as the 2011 side that failed to make it out of the pool phase in New Zealand.
They showed some defensive starch in a 34-0 victory over Samoa and hammered a fatigued Russia 61-0, highlighting their ability to patiently build pressure and create opportunities against weaker sides.
Against Japan, however, Scotland lacked finishing polish and consistency in the face of an aggressive defensive effort led by the hosts’ inspirational captain Michael Leitch.
Japan’s speed and the pace at which they switched play and created space also created problems, even for world-class fullback Stuart Hogg, who was no match for Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima.
Townsend sidestepped questions about his future, but felt there was “a lot more” in the team.
The failure would take a while to get over, conceded Hogg.
“We are absolutely devastated,” he said.
“I truly believe we will be better for the experience although it is going to kill us for a few months.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)