The Breakdown | Japan benefit from home advantage to edge towards tier-two breakthrough | Paul Rees | Sport

Gregor Townsend may have had Russia to prepare for this week but the attention of the Scotland coach drifted towards Sunday’s (hopeful) showdown – Typhoon Hagibis notwithstanding – against the hosts Japan and the stark fact that victory may not be enough to prevent his side from making an early exit for the second time in the last three World Cups.

Scotland, who must take four more points from the Pool A finale than the hosts to reach the quarter-finals, had already noted preferential treatment for Japan in the way their games are spread out with no short turnarounds, not that it did England much good four years ago.

Townsend queried a refereeing decision made during the last knockings of Japan’s 34-0 victory against Samoa when they had won the match but not secured a try bonus point.

Time was up when Samoa were awarded a penalty five metres from their line. Instead of kicking the ball dead, they opted for a scrum with a token bonus point to be won. The referee, Jack Peyper, awarded Japan a free-kick for a crooked feed – a rare call – and within a few seconds Kotaro Matsushima had scored his fourth try of the tournament to make Scotland’s task that little bit harder.

“I think it is an incredible call,” Townsend said. “It is not something that has been refereed and there has been an agreement that there is more latitude for scrum-halves putting in the ball because you are the team that has won the scrum. To see it in a World Cup really surprised me. To see it in injury time for a gamechanging decision was an even bigger surprise.”

Leaving aside debate about typhoons and what should happen in their event, there is a history of hosts being on the right end of dubious on-field decisions, although England were not so blessed: the 2011 World Cup final when France blamed Craig Joubert for their one-point defeat by the hosts New Zealand; the 2007 quarter-final when, conversely, New Zealand alleged Wayne Barnes was biased towards the French; no one was allowed to scrummage against Australia in 2003 and then there was the 1995 semi-final between South Africa and France when the result, had the television match official system been in place, would surely have gone the way of the French.

Townsend did not have to claim there was a conspiracy to give Japan the best chance of making the last eight and fulfilling World Rugby’s ambition of having one tier-two nation in the quarter-finals but the suggestion was left hanging in the air. The hosts will have had eight days between matches when the sides meet; their opponents four. Home advantage indeed.

And yet Canada were penalised for a crooked lineout on their 22 early in their match against Italy in Fukuoka. The referee was Nigel Owens, the most experienced in the tournament, and the throw was, by the standards that now seem to apply, not that wonky. One scrum later and Italy had their first try.

Scotland’s head coach Gregor Townsend

Scotland’s head coach Gregor Townsend has expressed surprise at the decision that enabled Japan to score a late try against Samoa. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

In the second half, Italy had a lineout from close to the same position. The throw was so not straight that the target could barely get a finger tip on his outside arm to touch the ball. Canada secured the ball but only after a knock-on. So there was a scrum. To Italy.

Tier-two nations have long complained that, on balance, refereeing decisions go against them but will there be a role reversal on Sunday with Scotland cast in the role of the emerging and Japan enjoying the status of the arrived.

There will not be many neutrals in the ground, the venue for the final and the scene of Scotland’s opening-round collapse against Ireland, and the home supporters are now unashamedly partisan.

The world game, never mind the tournament, would receive a needed stimulus should Japan make it to the quarter-finals and a potential return encounter with South Africa, the team they defeated to ignite the 2015 tournament.

The past three weeks have shown there is an audience for rugby in Japan but more than that there is commercial interest. Had World Rugby’s proposed Nations League not been stillborn earlier this year, Japan would have joined the Rugby Championship, along with Fiji, a move that would have been transformative.

It may still happen, although, alas, not for Fiji because, without the cash injection World Rugby had pledged, they would bring no commercial value. Japan are different and it has been notable that advertisements on trains and the subway now feature local players prominently.

The Rugby Championship countries are negotiating a new television deal for another four years at a time when Super Rugby’s allure is fading, having lost so many players to Europe and Japan. South Africa have wondered aloud about joining the European countries because it would be more financially lucrative but Japan have given pause for thought.

No Nations League means the south will continue to lag behind the north financially but Japan may prove to be the land of opportunity. The TV audience share for the match between Japan and Samoa was more than 46%, reckoned to be the biggest live audience in the country this year, and 150,000 supporters crammed into the fan zones.

Japan making the quarter-finals would only enhance their value. At the start of the tournament there was an assumption they would target the Scotland game but their coach, Jamie Joseph, had Ireland in mind all along.

The result was an explosion in interest in Japan and Scotland are now being billed as the fall guys. They will not accept the role come Sunday but it is not only because Japan are the hosts that they are in such a position.

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Publish date : 2019-10-10 10:18:00

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