It was not the end to the 2019 World Cup campaign Scotland had hoped for, but there can be no complaints from Gregor Townsend’s team about this result, which condemned them to a third place finish in Pool A behind host nation Japan and Ireland – meaning they will not progress to next weekend’s quarter-finals. It is only the second-time in the nation’s history that they have not reached the knock-out stages of the tournament

At the end of four days of uncertainty, during which there was serious doubt over whether Scotland would be bumped out the tournament without playing their final pool game due to World Rugby’s failure to come up with any sort of contingency plan for the impact of Typhoon Hagibis, there was at least some consolation for Scotland in the fact that they had at least been allowed to battle for a last-eight place on the playing pitch.

There was further consolation for the Scots in the fact that they were beaten by an excellent team – who became the first ever Asian nation to reach the knock-out stages of a World Cup – and who will certainly give South Africa a run for their money next Sunday as they look to electrify their adoring public even further by making it into the final four.

Rugby is still very much a minority sport in Japan, but it is gaining momentum through the heroic performances of their ‘Brave Blossoms’ at this tournament. Jamie Joseph’s team are not only playing an attractive, clever and winning brand of rugby, which is based on their ability to generate and move quic-ball with real pace and purpose. Give these guys a sniff and their dangerous outside backs will take full advantage. As Scotland found to their cost here.

Scotland started strongly – which isn’t a regular occurrence – and they stunned the raucous stadium into silence on six minutes when Russell launched an exquisite 40-yard diagonal which ripped Japan wide open. Darcy Graham and Magnus Bradbury followed up to secure a quick recycle, and, a few phases later, Russell finished the move off when he swept round the back of a ruck and brushed off two tackle on his way to the line.

It was just the start Scotland needed but they then found that they couldn’t cope with Japan’s ferocious response. The excellent Jamie Ritchie did well to snaffle ball under the shadow of his own posts, and Greig Laidlaw temporarily relieved the pressure, but a few minutes later Japan overwhelmed Graham on the far touchline, with Timothy Lafaele and Kenki Fukuoka combining to send Kotaro Matsushima racing in for the equalising try.

Then Matsushima blasted past Grant Gilchrist and Bradbury to take play deep into Scottish territory, requiring Tommy Seymour to save the bacon with a desperate last-gasp tackle, and after a quick recycle and some brilliant offloading out of contact, Keita Inagaki plunged over the line in for try number two.

Jonny Gray was reviewed on the big screen for a tackle on Shota Horie but referee Ben O’Keefe decided the second-row didn’t have a case to answer.

The half ended with Japan stretching even further ahead when Lafaele angled an excellent grubber in behind Graham, and Fukuoka collected the bouncing ball with one hand above his head mid-stride on his way to the line.

The half-time stats told a compelling story with Japan dominating possession (79-21). Scotland had made 112 tackles to their opponents making just 28.

Japan’s started the second 40 minutes as they had finished the first. Their incredible ferocity in defence caught Chris Harris on the back-foot and Fukuoka did brilliantly to rip the ball clear then dart home from 45 yards.

Scotland were dead and buried, or so it seemed. With Japan now having the bonus-point in the bag, the blue team needed to score four tries of their own and win by seven clear points to finish in a quarter-final qualifying position. That meant a very minimum of three converted tries and a penalty in the remains 37 minutes. 

Surely this was too much to hope for, even for Gregor Townsend’s comeback kids.

Then Nel powered over from close range, and it started to look just that little bit more achievable.

Townsend sent on the reinforcements. Blair Kinghorn, George Horne, Scott Cummings, Zander Fagerson, squad captain Stuart McInally and Gordon Reid all came off the bench. The first four of those names are part of an emerging breed of Scottish players who must now form the nucleus of the side which will build towards the 2023 World Cup, and they did make an impact here.

Cummings along with Jonny Gray carried strongly to punch holes in Japan’s defensive line, before Fagerson powered over for his first try in 25 Test matches.

Only two tries and a penalty needed now. Stuart Hogg thought he had got one of those scores when he streaked over the line just after the hour mark, but there had been a forward pass from Peter Horne to Harris during the lead-up. Harris then broke up the left from behind his own line, but his kick ahead bounced awkwardly over George Horne’s head. 

Scotland continued to bang away at the door. But there was a lot of tired bodies out there on both sides. They had run each other to a standstill.

The clock marched slowly down, and Scotland’s fate loomed over the horizon. And when it was all over, there was a strange sense of relief and pride that the beaten team had at least been able to go down fighting.

Teams –

Japan: W Tupou(R Yamanaka 51); K Matsushima, T Lafaele, R Nakamura, K Fukuoka; T Tumura, Y Nagare (F Tanaka 51); K Inagaki (I Nakajima 56) S Horie, J Koo (Asaeli Ai Valu 21), L Thompson, J Moore (W Helu 66), M Leitch, P Labuschagne, K Himeno.

Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour (B Kinghorn 51), C Harris, S Johnson, D Graham (P Horne 63); F Russell, G Laidlaw (G Horne 51); A Dell (G Reid 51), F Brown (S McInally 51), W Nel (Z Fagerson 51), G Gilchrist (S Cummings 51), J Gray, M Bradbury (R Wilson 66), J Ritchie,  B Thomson.

Referee: B O’Keeffe

Scorers –

Japan: Tries: Matsushima, Inagaki, Fukuoka 2; Cons: Tumura 4.
Scotland: Tries: Russell, Nel, Fagerson; Cons: Laidlaw 2, Russell.

Scoring sequence (Japan first): 0-5; 0-7; 5-7; 7-7; 12-7; 14-7; 19-7; 21-7 (h-t) 26-7; 28-7; 28-12; 28-14; 28-19; 28-21.

Attendance: 67,666