Gloucester Rugby’s Greig Laidlaw posted a man-of-the-match performance as his 20 points off the tee helped Scotland get off to a flying start in the Rugby World Cup at the expense of Japan.
Laidlaw’s four penalties just about shaded the first half favour of Scotland, as Japan flitted about dangerously but only had a converted Amanaki Mafi try to show for their efforts.
But the second half was the story of a clinical Scotland, as John Hardie finished off a patient move before Mark Bennett raced across for his first soon after.
With Tommy Seymour’s intercept try the Japanese resistance was finally broken, Bennett then conjured up the bonus point and Finn Russell – on his 23rd birthday – dotted down Scotland’s fifth to complete a brilliant start in a wide-open Pool B.
Japan’s victory over South Africa had been labelled as the biggest upset in rugby history – but coach Eddie Jones insisted they’d not come to England to be one-hit wonders no matter the scalp.
Yet for Scotland this was a clear opportunity, facing a side that had picked up just their second World Cup victory in 24 years and doubtless still physically and emotionally drained from their brilliance in Brighton on Saturday.
Scotland set about establishing dominance at the set-piece early on and after Japan failed to hold their ground at a line-out, Kingsholm favourite Laidlaw pushed a routine penalty between the posts. The scrum-half was back for more on 11 minutes to put Scotland up six points to the good.
But then Ayumu Goromaru, who racked up 24 points against the Springboks, wound up his magic boot again and found touch just five metres out after Grant Gilchrist was penalised for not rolling away.
And from the line-out Japan’s pack, undersized but undeterred, drove No.8 Mafi over the whitewash – Goromaru on target for the extras.
It was clear then that there was at least some energy left among the Brave Blossoms – but indiscipline was proving a problem.
Laidlaw stroked through his third penalty within 15 minutes of kick-off after Japan were pinged in the ruck and he followed that up with an effort near halfway following a knock-on from skipper Michael Leitch.
Laidlaw’s streak came to an end on his fifth go however after Kotaro Matsushima had illegally ripped the ball from the hands of Sean Lamont.
Matsushima’s indiscretions saw him sent to the sin bin but if anything it galvanised Japan, winning successive penalties at scrumtime before Goromaru fluffed his lines with a 25-yard penalty attempt.
Still Japan came and only a mammoth efforts from the Scots backed up under the posts kept a succession of pick-and-goes away from the whitewash.
With the last action of the half Scotland were denied by a sensational cover tackle from Goromaru, who somehow caught up to Seymour on the right-hand touchline after Russell had flung out a misspass.
The second half started off in very much the same vein, try-scorer Mafi haring around the edge of Scotland’s line and Russell was forced to pounce on his grubber kick while under pressure.
Scotland survived but Mafi continued to wreak havoc, this time pounding through the centre, and Goromaru cut the deficit to two after an offside call. But it came at a loss, as Mafi left the pitch on a stretcher following a collision with opposing No.8 Dave Denton.
Almost immediately after Vern Cotter’s troops came alive, Matt Scott, Sean Lamont and Stuart Hogg all combining down the left which ended in the latter falling agonisingly short of the line. But after recycled ball New Zealand-born Hardie, who only made his Scotland debut last month, touched down.
Scotland shot themselves in the foot upon kick-off after Richie Gray let the ball bounce but Japan failed to capitalise on an offside, as Goromaru’s penalty hit the upright.
And there was the clearest indication that Japan were suffering from heavy legs after a jinking Hogg scythed through the line from his own half – and though he couldn’t go the distance himself, Bennett eventually skipped through unchallenged.
Laidlaw was on target with the conversion and in the 63rd minute the game was put to bed by Seymour, as the Glasgow Warrior intercepted after a spell of Japanese pressure and went all the way.
The try-bonus point was the only unresolved matter now and it arrived swiftly, Bennett bursting over after waiting in support ten metres from the try-line.
And after a Japan scrum was pushed back, Russell bought himself the perfect birthday present by wriggling away to dot down and a cap a fine Scotland performance – Laidlaw completing his fourth conversion.