Despite being an avid sports fan, before this weekend I was yet to attend a rugby match in person. A great opportunity for a first game presented itself with Scotland taking on Japan at Murrayfield in the final round of Autumn Nations Series internationals. This affair did not disappoint, in what was a closely-fought contest. Scotland came out on top 29 – 20 after an especially exciting second half. This meant that they ended this calendar year on a high, and can now look forward to the Six Nations next February.
Scotland came into this one on the back of some solid form. In their last three internationals in recent weeks, they firstly defeated Tonga convincingly 60 – 14. This was followed up by an extremely tough test against two-times former world champions Australia. They came through this well in a narrow 15 – 13 victory, and it was a highly impressive defensive display, conceding only one try and with a late Finn Russell penalty taking them over the line. However, the last game against South Africa was slightly disappointing. They lost 15 – 30, with six penalties conceded in total and the attack not being up to standards. It should be said that these are the Springboks, the reigning world champions, and so this result was nothing to get overly down about, but still, Scotland could have performed better on the day.
Japan, on the other hand, have had mostly mixed fortunes. They of course burst onto the stage following a remarkable 34 – 32 win over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup under current England coach Eddie Jones, and since then have continued to build as a rugby nation. They hosted the 2019 World Cup, and they made it out of the group stage, defeating Ireland and Scotland in the process. A quarter-final against South Africa was a step too far, but they can still be incredibly pleased with how they performed. And, in this Autumn Nations Series, they narrowly lost to Australia 23 – 32, before a heavy 60 – 5 defeat to Ireland and a 38 – 25 win over Portugal. This means that Scotland had the better form going into this one as well as the home advantage, but, take nothing away, both sides were relatively evenly matched and all was set up for a great encounter.
Now, onto my matchday experience. It was great to head to Murrayfield and soak in the pre-match atmosphere of bagpipes, kilts, and passionate rugby fans and chants, with “Flower of Scotland” being belted out by the crowd after the teams had come out onto the pitch. The first half was dominated by Scotland, as Japan struggled to get any real momentum. Winger van der Merwe opened the scoring with a try stemming from a scrum, and from that point Scotland continued to press home their advantage up until half time. Japan converted two penalties, but further tries from star player Hogg and Graham gave the hosts a comfortable 19 – 6 lead going into the break. Hogg's try was the best of the bunch, with a fast shift in playing the ball from right to left, as the Japanese defence was exposed on that side. Overall, the pattern of play reflected the score line, as the Scots were on top with Japan failing to make inroads.
The second half, however, was much more closely contested. Scotland had a player in the sin bin for the first ten minutes for a foul, and, with the extra man advantage, Japan capitalised. Two quick penalties brought them to within seven points of the hosts, but subsitutes made a difference, and a try from McInally gave Scotland breathing space once again. Tatafu scored Japan's only try of the game nine minutes later, and it was set up for an exciting finish. One converted try would do it for the visitors, as it was now 26 – 20. They came close and looked threatening, but, as it did throughout the day, the Scots' defensive line did a job. And, after a penalty was awarded in the last minute and Russell dispatched another kick, it was all but over. The hosts were deserved winners, yet will know that they still have work to do going forward.
The Six Nations is always a big test, and Scotland will be looking to build on their recent success. Last time out earlier in the year, Scotland came fourth, ahead of England, and they could take great pride from this with three wins and two losses. Winning at Twickenham was a great display, restricting England to just six points. The matches with Wales and Ireland were incredibly close, narrowly losing 24 – 25 and 24 – 27 respectively; they demolished Italy 52 – 10; and a heroic performance in France saw them win 27 – 23 with a last minute try from van der Merwe. Scotland have sometimes underperformed in the Six Nations in recent years, notably getting the Wooden Spoon in 2015, but now look to be on an upward path. It will always be difficult to win it, yet a third-place finish this time at least is definitely something that they can aim for.
This was a great day out, seeing two top rugby teams battle it out in my first ever live match. The atmosphere, the passion, and the rugby itself was amazing. Scotland built on a great win against Australia and took something from the South Africa defeat to put in a solid display. I would highly recommend anyone to go to Murrayfield or any rugby match if you are yet to, and I will be trying to go to a Six Nations game come next year. There are many great occasions to look forward to in rugby, and any Six Nations game is definitely one of them.