TOKYO, 13 Oct – A preview of Sunday’s final Pool A fixture between Japan and Scotland, which is scheduled to kick off at 19:45 at International Stadium Yokohama.
The Big Picture
How do you prepare for potentially the biggest game of your career when you know, in the back of your mind, it might be cancelled hours before kick-off?
For all the trademark optimism of Scotland coach Gregor Townsend – “We are 100 per cent confident it will go ahead” – the backdrop to the final match of the Rugby World Cup pool phase is impossible to ignore.
What should, and still could, be one of the most enthralling games of this or any other World Cup remains shrouded in uncertainty, until the full impact of Typhoon Hagibis is known.
Rather than the usual team run the day before a game, Scotland’s players were contemplating walking through moves in the ballroom of their hotel in Yokohama, where the storm was expected to hit hard.
Japan’s squad did venture outside early on Saturday in Tokyo, but they had to wade through several feet of water to do so, as tweeted by Japan Rugby Football Union:
If the game goes ahead, qualification for the knockout phase is the prize for both countries. Japan, now ranked eighth in the world – one place above Scotland – have three wins from three, including one over Pool A favourites Ireland. As Brave Blossoms coach Jamie Joseph reminded everyone: “It isn’t a fluke.”
A fourth straight win, or a draw, would clinch a quarter-final against South Africa in Tokyo next Sunday. A losing bonus point might be enough, if Scotland do not score four tries, for Japan to progress as runners-up, which would pit them against New Zealand in the knockouts. Scotland know, after Ireland’s bonus-point win against Samoa on Saturday, that they must take four points more than Japan from this match.
The Scots have failed to reach the quarter-finals in only one of the previous eight World Cups, in 2011, but know the majority of the crowd, and neutrals captivated by the hosts’ progress, will be against them.
“There will be a sense of us against 70,000 people,” Townsend said. “We know we are going into an atmosphere that will be very passionate for the opposition and they will get energy from the crowd. We have to take away that energy.”
Greig Laidlaw – or “Mr Greig” as he is known – is a popular presence in Japan. Strange, you might think, since he has been a thorn in their side every time he has faced them: 15 points in November 2013, 20 points in their 2015 RWC meeting, 16 and 12 points when Scotland eked out two wins on tour in 2016.
Sunday could well be the scrum-half general’s 76th and final test. He turned 34 the day before the game and may opt to bring a distinguished international career to a close once this tournament is over.
It is perhaps fitting that he will resume the captaincy – taking over from the benched Stuart McInally – for such a high-stakes contest where his composure under pressure could prove critical to the outcome.
“I’m probably the most experienced player in the team and it’s a big game,” said Laidlaw, Scotland’s second highest points scorer with 710, who needs another six to exceed 100 in World Cups.
“I’m more than happy to take on the responsibility, but effectively it changes nothing. We have a test match to win and that’s what we are all concentrating on.
“Japan have played really good rugby. We just want the game to go ahead and the opportunity to qualify for the quarter-finals on merit. That is all we can hope for.”
Japan make four changes after their 38-19 win over Samoa, with hooker Shota Horie, second-row Luke Thompson, winger Kenki Fukouoka and full-back William Tupou all back in the starting line-up.
Michael Leitch resumes the captaincy for Japan, after fellow flanker Pieter Labuschagne took on the role for the last two games.
Scotland have dropped captain McInally to the bench, with Fraser Brown rewarded for his good form with a first test start at hooker since November last year, though he started and played 30 minutes at openside flanker against Russia on Wednesday.
Wingers Darcy Graham and Tommy Seymour are the only players to retain their places from that match, with Sean Maitland unfit with a groin problem. The 12 changes mean stars including Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Laidlaw return to the backline, as do the same pack who started against Samoa, apart from McInally.
Stats & Trivia
Scotland have won all seven of their previous meetings with Japan, three of them coming in the World Cups of 1991 (47-9), 2003 (32-11) and 2015 (45-10).
Japan winger Kotaro Matsushima is joint top try-scorer at RWC 2019 with four tries, while fly-half Yu Tamura is the top scorer with 40, ahead of the weekend’s fixtures.
Greig Laidlaw will extend his record as captain of Scotland by leading them for a 40th time against Japan.
Japan’s starting XV features seven players (Inagaki, Horie, Thompson, Leitch, Fukuoka, Tamura and Matsushima) who also started in the 45-10 defeat by Scotland at RWC 2015. Seven of the Scotland XV (Hogg, Seymour, Russell, Laidlaw, Nel, Gray, Gilchrist) also started that match in Gloucester four years ago.
Scotland have not conceded a point in 172 minutes, keeping successive opponents (Samoa and Russia) scoreless for the first time since 1964.
“Having the courage is most important. There are those who get frightened as they near the line, chickening out when they are faced with pressure. We need to turn iron-hearted when facing Tier 1 teams.” – Japan captain Michael Leitch
“We know it wouldn’t be an embarrassment to lose to Japan. They are an excellent side and we will have to play very well to win. It is a game you dream to be involved in.” – Scotland coach Gregor Townsend
RR WORLD RANKINGS – During World Cup the RR Ranking Points are DOUBLED
JAP (on 80.70 points) at home -vs- SCO (on 80.62 points) in a RWC match
|Possible Outcome||Rating Point
|If JAP win by 1-15 points||1.384||82.08||79.24||No|
|If JAP win by more than 15||2.076||82.78||78.54||No|
|If result is a draw||0.616||80.08||81.24||Yes|
|If SCO win by 1-15 points||2.616||78.08||83.24||Yes|
|If SCO win by more than 15||3.924||76.78||84.54||Yes|
15 William Tupou, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Michael Leitch (c), 5 James Moore, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Isileli Nakajima, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Hendrik Tui, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Ryohei Yamanaka
🏴 SCOTLAND :
15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Darcy Graham, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Allan Dell
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Scott Cummings, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 George Horne, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Blair Kinghorn
Date: Sunday, October 13
Venue: International Stadium Yokohama
Kick-off: 19:45 local
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)