Preview: Scotland v Japan

Date published: November 8 2013

It's a strong Scotland line-up that will take to the Murrayfield turf on Saturday for their November Test opener against Japan.

It's a strong Scotland line-up that will take to the Murrayfield turf on Saturday for their November Test opener against Japan.

Coach Scott Johnson vowed that the November Tests would represent the “last chance saloon” for a number of more seasoned internationals, and there are several for whom a big performance against the Brave Blossoms would do wonders.

While opinion on Johnson remains largely divided, the Australian looks to have instilled both a greater sense of belief in a side that can struggle with confidence problems, and sought to make his selections based more on form than reputation.

In that vein, the powerful Tim Swinson is rewarded with a start on Saturday for some fine early-season performances with Glasgow Warriors. Swinson, arguably Scotland's form lock, is both abrasive and dynamic in the loose, but his lack of size and aerial ability may hinder his efforts to break up the Richie Gray-Jim Hamilton axis in the engine room.

Swinson partners club captain Al Kellock, a veteran of some 55 Tests, but whom few anticipated would force his way into the serious international reckoning. With so much quality around him, the onus is on the 32-year-old to prove leadership and a cool head are not all he brings to the party.

Elsewhere, the much-maligned Nick de Luca links up with his Edinburgh partner Matt Scott in the centres. De Luca often plays the role of villain and scapegoat for the more misguided Scottish fans, exacerbated by moments of rashness, but he has class and skill in abundance, and better line-breaking and distribution abilities than most of his rivals.

However, with a promising young group of centres pushing for international recognition, the Edinburgh man – now approaching 40 caps – must transfer his impressive club form to the Test arena.

The half-back duo of Greig Laidlaw and Ruairidh Jackson sprung no surprises, but Warriors openside Chris Fusaro may feel hard done by as he misses out on a place in the squad altogether.

Instead, Kelly Brown wears the number seven jersey, and retains his role as skipper alongside Al Strokosch and Dave Denton at six and eight respectively.

The lack of an out-and-out openside should not be felt against the Japanese, but Scotland's powerful and sizeable back-row will have to step up to the challenge at the breakdown represented by South Africa and Australia.

The backline is hit by the loss of two of its most potent attacking threats in the talented Stuart Hogg and the prolific Tim Visser. Though neither are the finished article, the loss of both significantly reduces the incisiveness of the Scots' offence.

Tommy Seymour, on one wing, should impress, but his defensive awareness and lack of experience could cost him against the Springboks and the Wallabies.

Sean Lamont, on the other, is a seasoned international, and in good club form. But while he adds bulk and power aplenty to the wide areas, he lacks the pace and finishing ability of Visser, and has a dangerous tendency to rush up or step in unnecessarily in defence.

Meanwhile, the Japanese remain something of a little-known quantity in Northern Hemisphere rugby, but there are clear and obvious signs Saturday's visitors are no pushovers.

Under the tutelage of experienced and much-vaunted ex-Australian coach Eddie Jones, they notched their sixth consecutive Asian Five Nations title, and turned heads in their June Test fixtures against Wales.

That two-match series saw the Brave Blossoms lose narrowly to a “developmental” Welsh side in the first clash, before overcoming the same opposition 23-8 a week later.

In addition, Japan welcomed the All Blacks to Tokyo a week ago, and could take great heart from their performance in certain facets of the game, despite the inevitable hefty reverse.

Particularly, the hosts proved they had a set-piece capable of, briefly at least, troubling the Kiwis. Their scrum showed signs that, with proper development, it could become something of a real weapon; while the Japanese line-out was disruptive for their illustrious visitors.

With Ross Ford's throwing famously wayward, and with Swinson and Kellock rather than the commanding aerial duo of Gray and Hamilton competing for the Scots, the Japanse would be wise to target this area as a potentially fruitful source of possession.

Ones to watch:

For Scotland: The intelligence of Matt Scott at inside centre is crucial to the potency of a backline, which in recent years, has struggled to convert pressure and territory into tries. With a turn of pace and a pair of soft hands so lacking from the Scottish midfield since the glory days of Gregor Townsend, John Leslie and Alan Tait, the Edinburgh linchpin is viewed as the man to sharpen what had become a blunt attacking force.

Having added brawn and muscle to his brains during pre-season, Scott is now better equipped to handle the physical aspect of Test rugby. And tested he will indeed be when the likes of Jean de Villiers and Matt Toomua come calling.

For Japan: The powerful Michael Broadhurst is a force to be reckoned with amid the Japanese pack. Named on the flank on Saturday, Broadhurst is an excellent carrier, and managed to cross the line in both June Tests against Wales. He will be a tricky prospect for the Scots in defence too – posting 13 tackles against the Blacks and missing none.

Head-to-head: Scottish vice-captain and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw faces an altogether different proposition than he is used to in the diminutive form of Fumiaki Tanaka. Tanaka, the smallest man in Super Rugby at just 5ft 5' tall, is arguably a more similar player to the Edinburgh skipper than many of his Northern Hemisphere counterparts. And indeed, Laidlaw will have his work cut out keeping tabs on the rapid Highlander, renowned for his slick service in attack, and his harrying and niggling of his opposition – in spite of his lack of size – in defence. It's a battle that could frustrate the Scots in possession, and give the Japanese the consistently quick ball they will need to have any chance of victory.

Recent results:

2004: Scotland won 100-8
2003: Scotland won 32-11 (RWC)

Prediction: The names on Scotland's team-sheet prove Scott Johnson is neither filing this match under the category marked “development”, nor taking the Cherry Blossoms lightly as opposition. It is, however, their first outing together in several month, and judging by the remarks of Japanese stand-in coach Scott Wisemantel, it is a game the visitors are targeting as winnable. Goal-setting and achieving are two very different things, however, and another courageous showing will not be enough to prevent a comfortable Scottish victory. Scotland by 30.

The teams:

Scotland: 15 Sean Maitland, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Nick de Luca, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8