Why Scotland could be Japan's sternest test

The expansive Scots are exceptional kickers but there's much more to their game - as the Brave Blossoms will discover first-hand.

TOKYO, 11 Oct - So far in Rugby World Cup 2019, Japan have faced Russia, Samoa and Ireland. Both Ireland and Russia are among the least expansive teams at the World Cup.

The metric we can use to show this is passes per ruck. The more passes a team make per ruck, the more expansive they are. Russia rank 18th of the 20 teams with 1.27 passes per ruck, Ireland are 16th with 1.30, Samoa 10th with 1.47.

After two games, Scotland were fifth with 1.77 but they hit 2.23 against Russia. That is beyond what even leaders Fiji achieve.

When Scotland take on the hosts in the tournament's final pool-stage match, they will pose a challenge that Japan have yet to face in the competition. 

Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg all have exceptional kicking games. Opposing teams must put at least two defenders in the backfield to cover their territorial kicks. If only one defender is back, Russell and Hogg will kick away from them and gain territory.

In these highlights, Russell and Adam Hastings, pictured above, are comfortable chipping a kick into the space behind the defensive line. That forced Russia to take three defenders out of their defensive line and redistribute them.

When the defensive line is light of defenders Scotland can pass the ball into the wide space. If the defensive line is filled Scotland will kick in behind. Hastings, at 21 seconds in this clip, and Blair Kinghorn at 71 seconds, both used this tactic for two Scottish tries.

At 54 seconds, Scotland showed the danger they pose when the opposition kick loosely to them. The Scottish winger and full-back positions are stacked with exciting open-field runners.

Any time a kick is long and has no effective chase there is a risk Scotland will carry right back past you. Japan kick the sixth-most of any team here. 

When Ireland put Russell under pressure they exposed a weakness. He was not able to break down the Irish defence when he was constantly being blitzed.

Against Samoa he did not have the same problem. At 45 seconds you can see how he was given the time to pull off excellent kicks. Very few international fly-halves can dissect a defence like Russell.

Will Japan give him the time? Do they have the fitness to blitz him all the time and play frenetically when they have the ball? Does any team have that fitness?

Russell is not just a good kicker: at 72 seconds, he shows he can break a defence with his footwork and handling too. He expects a blitz but when it does not come he straightens up and goes straight through the line. The offload allows Jamie Ritchie and Laidlaw to finish off the try.

Beating Scotland is an exceptionally hard task. They were at their worst against Ireland but they have improved since.

If a team put defenders back to cover a kick they will pass the ball wide and put you under pressure there. If the opposition kick loosely to them they will punish them but if opponents do not kick at all, the Scots can steal the ball.

In Scotland, Japan face a team who play in a very similar way to them - for the first time in this tournament. This could be their biggest challenge. Let's just hope Typhoon Hagibis does not disturb what promises to be a fascinating clash.

RNS sl/sdg/pp/bo