Longform Disappointment: Japan

As a necessary introduction: I’m Scottish. Welcome to a series on fandom.

***

The first video game exploit I can remember using is the Missingno glitch in Pokemon Red. It was… odd. The stuff of rumour and legend on the playground until you tried it for yourself.

At the beginning, I’d grind, hard, for interminable, tedious hours, gameplay being padded out with pointless battles to gain experience. Hours of time were spent walking in circles, finding the same enemy, beating it senseless, then walking in circles again, just to make my pixelated sprites strong enough that I could access the next area of the game.

There was no skill to it, no sense of my becoming honed, hardened, better at the game. Maths dictated that I would eventually win, and I did, by rotely calling for the same attack after attack after attack until a MIDI fanfare signalled victory.

And then, about two thirds of the way through the game, the glitch presented itself. Go talk to someone in the early game, immediately fly to a completely different place, swim idly up and down a ten metre stretch of coastline until a hellish, Dr Moreau-ian snarl of symbols and lines garbles its way onto your screen. Defeat this strangely underpowered abomination however you please. And presto! Whatever item was in a specific place in your inventory has multiplied itself a thousand-fold.

The relentless grind of having to gain experience immediately melts away. The tension of challenging a powerful opponent vanishes. The game immediately becomes a stately victory procession, a gentle, unhindered prance. There’s still no measure of how good you are at the game but who cares? You’re winning!

On a not entirely unrelated note, Scotland’s opening world cup match resulted in a 45-10 win over Japan.

That would be the same Japan team who beat a full strength South Africa side the previous Sunday, the same Japan team which prompted Scots to enjoy the upset, underdog victory for all of ten seconds. This conversation happened on my couch, verbatim, after Japan’s win on Sunday:

“That was amazing! Japan were… well, you know how, like, sometimes teams get a lucky win?”

“Yeah, where they don’t deserve it and just a bunch of stuff happens and they kind of scrape by.”

“But Japan actually outplayed South Africa! They’re really good! Who they playing next?”

“Us. On Wednesday.”

Blank silence. All the excitement and energy bouncing about the room feels the change in mood and slinks quietly out.

“Oh.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“We could legit lose to Japan.”

So the expectation coming into the game had been suitably dampened. Scotland couldn’t really lose, unless they actually went and lost. A narrow win would be because Japan were a good side, and a decent win would be another point on the upward graph of progress.

Which meant the tightly contested first half – culminating in Finn Russell butchering a clear overlap using the trusty meat cleaver of an unnecessary miss pass – caused about a standard level of anxiety. We’re talking muttering quietly at the TV with the occasional frustrated curse, on the scale of silent satisfaction to angrily storming out. Not quite at the level of lecturing the players, or giving lectures on coaching to random bystanders, but a Japan score might have tipped me over the edge. A grinding, effort filled first half, ending with a slender lead.

And then the second half came. Scotland scored, and then scored again, and then there was a windfall of scores all at once. Suddenly, Stuart Hogg picked the ball up in midfield and just ran and the Japanese players gasped and tried and couldn’t catch him.

That’s what made me think of glitches. Scotland had stumbled on an exploit, a way to amble their way to what kind of felt like a slightly unearned victory. Sure, everyone played hard and gave a decent effort, and there were some good patterns. But a 35 point victory wasn’t the way the match played out. The Japanese looked shattered after 50 minutes. Most of their team had played in that epic over South Africa three days before, and Scotland benefited.

The first 20 minutes, Scotland looked good, sharp and crisp and powerful. They were doing what South Africa hadn’t, transferring the ball and shifting the point of attack rather than just running at defenders. Professional rugby players can generally tackle, something South Africa failed to grasp. Russell was putting men into space on the outside, after the Japanese defence was drawn onto a pod of forwards, and we were easily crossing the gainline.

Japan fought back, winning more possession and more territory (partly fuelled by Scotland being overly conservative with their decisions) and scored the game’s first try. But then the second half rolled around and proper evaluation of Scotland went out the window.

Concerns about the balance of the back row, or the structure of the defence, or the depth in the front row were all mumblingly half-answered. Was the vast amount of possession the Japanese had, the enormous disparity in tackles made, because we weren’t contesting rucks? Or was it because the back row isn’t great on the floor? Was our defence better, or were Japan just unable to put together the sort of wide play that consistently left us exposed in the warm-up games? Do we have a scrum? Is Dave Denton a useless, lumbering galoot? Has no-one explained to Matt Scott how to pass yet?

For the moment, the answers to these are largely “TBD”. In their best moments, Japan were getting astonishingly quick ball – far quicker than Scotland’s – and were immediately whipping it away from the breakdown. That meant a stretched defence, which is far easier to get behind at speed, which in turn makes the defence and the breakdown work look worse.

(Although the next time I see Denton win a turnover at a ruck or Scott throw a flat pass into space will be the first. There’s a lot of evidence there.)

And the attacking patterns certainly look like they’re being coached, at least. The first twenty minutes, the game-planned period of the match that the coaches have the most influence over, saw Scotland looking like a well-oiled attacking machine. That said, though, it might be worthwhile investigating the possibility of cryogenic storage to avoid Finn Russell getting injured. If nothing else, the SRU should manufacture him a bespoke bubble wrap suit. On his last couple of performances, he can’t be allowed to get injured; the warm-ups showed that the depth behind him is more a puddle than a loch.

So, for me, Japan lost the game, rather than Scotland winning it. They fell apart, and Scotland took advantage. Maybe I’m not giving Scotland enough credit. After all, they didn’t drop the win when it was handed to them on a platter. But despite having (strange as it is to consider) an outstanding opportunity to top the pool, there are still a bunch of unresolved questions swirling around the team and how good they actually are. The USA game should provide a few more answers.

On the other hand, who cares? We won!

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