FINE FOR FINN: Teammates congratulate birthday boy Finn Russell after he scores Scotland's fifth try
GLOUCESTER, 23 Sept – Springbok slayers Japan bemoaned losing try-scorer Amanaki Mafi to injury as their hopes of another upset faded after a spirited first half against Scotland on Wednesday.
Number eight Mafi touched down after 15 minutes to give his team the lead and the Scots had to rely on Greg Laidlaw's boot to go into the interval 12-7 up.
But the Brave Blossoms wilted when Mafi was withdrawn five minutes after the break and tries from John Hardie, Mark Bennett (two), Tommy Seymour and Finn Russell in less than half an hour blew away the Japanese, who eventually succumbed 45-10.
Japan head coach Eddie Jones said Mafi's loss was a turning point.
“Mafi was a big loss,” he said. “He had been denting the Scotland line but we had to get over losing him and we didn’t.
“At half-time, we had a realistic chance of winning the game.”
Scotland started brightly against Japan, who were playing only four days after their heroics against South Africa in Brighton.
Man of the match Greig Laidlaw, the Gloucester scrum-half, put Scotland six points ahead from the tee and was happy to repeatedly challenge Japan with the up and under to press home his side's early dominance at the set piece.
But when they conceded a penalty on halfway, full-back Ayumu Goromaru, the man Japan have taken to calling their 'comic book hero' following his sensational try on Saturday, found touch five metres from the Scotland tryline.
Japan took the set piece cleanly and rumbled over for the first try of the game - Mafi rising from the base of the strong Japanese driving maul with a quarter of an hour gone.
Goromaru split the posts with the conversion but Japan’s two-point lead was short-lived as Laidlaw struck twice more from the tee. He looked comfortable in familiar surroundings at Kingsholm but could not find his target on the fifth occasion after Lacey sent Japan wing, Kotaro Matsushima, to the bin for illegally stripping the ball as his opposite number, Sean Lamont, powered forward.
As Jones had predicted, Japan came out of the blocks quickly at the beginning of the second 40 minutes.
Mafi charged down the left wing and put in a grubber kick which was swept up by Scotland’s birthday boy and fly-half Russell. Mafi came again moments later, the powerful Shining Arcs forward breaking the line for a second time.
Scotland were penalised on the retreat and Goromaru finally cut the deficit to two points, but only after a brief stoppage as Mafi left the field.
As Japan found themselves back within two points, Scotland split them open with a cleverly worked move that released Stuart Hogg. Japan recycled but Laidlaw saw flanker John Hardie on the left, who found the whitewash and put Scotland seven points clear.
Laidlaw missed the conversion from the touchline and then Japan almost scored again after replacement lock Richie Gray climbed high but missed the Japanese restart. Japan came back for a penalty but Goromaru hit the uprights and Laidlaw cleared Scotland’s lines.
Hogg then burst through the flailing Japanese defence to give Scotland the platform before Bennett stormed under the posts. Laidlaw converted to extend the lead to 14 points but Japan, although beginning to flag, refused to give in.
The Brave Blossoms pressed but, as they tried to spread the play, a pass intended for centre Male Sa’u was intercepted by Seymour, who ran in from 60 metres out for Scotland’s third on 65 minutes.
Shortly after, Bennett showed pace to burn to score his second and secure the bonus point, before Russell, celebrating his 23rd birthday, dipped under the posts for Scotland's fifth.
Scotland coach Vern Cotter conceded his team had been sternly challenged.
“I thought they were a very difficult team to play against and I thought they were deft passers of the ball and very good at changing the angles,” he said. “We’re happy to get the win, happy to pull away in the second half and happy to get started (this tournament).
“Watching everyone else play has been a little nerve-wrecking, especially when we saw Japan’s performance against South Africa. Credit to Greig and the boys for keeping their nerve, even when Japan were close to the try-line.”