Rise of second-tier rugby nations still seems a dream of the future

U.S. in action against Samoa.
U.S. in action against Samoa.

What to make of Japan’s 45-10 loss to Scotland Wednesday?

Last Saturday after defeating South Africa 34-32, the Japanese were giant-killers, hailed as the vanguard of second-tier rugby nations moving up to compete with the best in the Rugby World Cup.

That did not appear the case on Wednesday. Japan held the Scots to a 12-7 halftime lead and then added another penalty to make it 12-10 soon after the break. But from then on it was all Scotland, as they ran in try after try, picking up the bonus point for scoring at least four in a match.

Japan had little possession, lacked a defensive answer to the Scots and even at the end could not score a face-saving try despite multiple phases with the ball. That was a change from Saturday when they chose to go for a try and a win rather than a penalty kick and a draw. They succeeded then but didn’t have the power or finesse to do so Wednesday.

So what happened? Was the Saturday game a fluke? A very bad day for the Springboks and a tremendous day for Japan? Or maybe South Africa is not the powerhouse of years past?

On Wednesday, the Japanese were playing on four days rest after a bruising game against South Africa. They may have surprised South Africa but lost that element against Scotland.

Scots were playing their first game of the tournament Wednesday. They will face the United States on Sunday with only four days rest, but much of the second half against Japan saw many reserves on the pitch. The Eagles can’t count on much of a break from Scotland’s short turnaround.

Mike Tolkin, the US coach, said after the Sunday loss to Samoa that he wanted fewer penalties and a more steady game from the Eagles in their next game. The Eagles will need all of that and more this coming Sunday in Leeds.

After looking at the four tournament pools, it’s hard not to come away with impression that the second-tier teams still have a ways to go, despite what Japan managed last Saturday.

How things stand:

Pool A: Wales and England each have five points in the standings. They play each other on Saturday.

Pool B: Scotland has the lead with five points and plays Samoa on Saturday. Samoa and Japan each have four points, South Africa has 2 and the U.S. none.

Pool C: New Zealand and Georgia each have four points. The All Blacks play Namibia tonight. Georgia, which surprised Tonga in their first match, plays Argentina on Friday. Hard not to see New Zealand taking control in this pool.

Pool D: France clobbered Romania 38-10 on Wednesday and has nine points to lead the pool. Ireland picked up five points in its 50-7 win over Canada last weekend and play Romania on Sunday. The Irish could take the pool lead with a four-try performance on Sunday. With two teams advancing from each pool, this one seems a likely candidate to come down to the last pool match on Sunday, Oct. 11, when the French and Irish meet.

Japan’s win scrambles Pool B prospects

Not sure that Australian scrum half Nick Phipps would still say this about the U.S. rugby team now, but before the Wallabies beat the Eagles 47-10 on Sept. 5, he told The Guardian: “They should cause a couple of upsets at the World Cup. They have some very big, dominant forwards. They have some really big, tall timber in the second row. They also have a couple of centers that are hard runners, and are quite skillful in the offload area as well. They have got threats all around the park.”

The Eagles will need to use all those threats on Sunday as they face Samoa in their first Rugby World Cup 2015 match. A win over Samoa would not be an upset as they have come within a try of beating the Islanders in previous matches. But a win could set up the U.S. to do well in Pool B, which was set topsy-turvy on Saturday with Japan’s upset win over South Africa, previously the heavy favorite to win the pool.

Even with a win on Sunday, it would still be a tough road ahead for the Eagles. Japan is obviously not going to be an easy win on October 11, and before then the U.S. will face Scotland and South Africa, who will be looking to pick up the extra pool points that come with scoring four tries in a match. The way this Pool B is starting out, it could be decided not just on wins and losses, but on getting the advantage through scoring more tries.

It’s set up for a very competitive couple of weeks.