Preview: Japan v Scotland
WORLD CUP POOL MATCH: An angry war of words between Japan and Scotland has injected an element of needle into Sunday’s typhoon-threatened clash in Yokohama.
Furious at threats of a formal Scottish protest if the crunch Pool A clash is cancelled, Japan coach Jamie Joseph felt the hosts had been disrespected, fuming that talk of legal action “undermined the achievements” of his side.
His opposite number, Gregor Townsend, hit back by saying he “had a good laugh” at the comments of a coach that played Test matches for New Zealand and Japan, which were made with the help of prepared notes before he named his Japan side.
“I’d like to remind everybody it hasn’t been a fluke,” growled Joseph, referring to Japan’s perfect record after three pool fixtures.
“Everyone in our squad wants to play the Test match,” he added, before the biggest game in Japanese rugby history.
“It’s important for us to wake up on Monday morning and understand we are a worthy top-eight team.”
But Scottish Rugby Union Chief Executive Mark Dodson insisted Scotland would not become “collateral damage” from a violent typhoon that wiped out England versus Italy and New Zealand versus Italy on Saturday for safety reasons.
Dodson called on World Cup organisers to take a “common-sense approach” by moving Sunday’s game to Monday if necessary, rather than sticking to the protocol of calling it off and declaring the result a 0-0 draw.
Townsend, meanwhile, accused Joseph of trying to “put messages out” as the build-up to a match that Joseph predicted would be a “real ripper” turned into tit-for-tat verbal sparring.
Given the bad blood, and how much is at stake, it would be little surprise to see tempers boil over if the match goes ahead.
Japan is looking to avenge a 45-10 defeat by Scotland at the 2015 World Cup that cost them a quarter-final spot, despite three wins including a 34-32 shock over South Africa.
After beating Russia 30-10, stunning Ireland 19-12 and thrashing Samoa 38-19, the Brave Blossoms are on the brink of history once again and Joseph expects a bruising encounter.
“We know we’re playing a very good rugby team, Scotland has got a lot of X-factor,” he said.
“It’s a team Japan has never beaten before but we’re top of the table with an opportunity to win the pool,” added Joseph, who has handed back the game captaincy to talismanic flanker Michael Leitch.
“We expect a lot of aerial pressure and big physical pressure around the maul, but we have to stick with what we do well.”
Leitch has demanded Japan’s players step up.
“Having courage is the most important thing,” he said. “Not chickening out when faced with pressure. We have to face up to it.”
Scotland has bounced back from a 27-3 drubbing by Ireland in their opening game to smash Samoa 34-0 and Russia 61-0.
But a Japanese side that left Ireland seeing stars brings a different set of challenges.
“We know it wouldn’t be an embarrassment to lose to Japan,” said Townsend, striking a more conciliatory tone.
“We know they are an excellent side and we will have to play very well to win.”
Players to watch
For Japan: Michael Leitch reclaims the captaincy, after Pieter Labuschagne captained the Brave Blossoms for their shock victory against Ireland, as well as their win against Samoa. Leitch made a barnstorming impact off the bench against the Irish. Coach Jamie Joseph made four changes. Wing Kenki Fukuoka, who scored the winning try against Ireland, replaces Lomano Lemeki, who drops out of the matchday 23. Hooker Shota Horie wins back his place in the starting side after dropping to the bench against Samoa. Veteran lock Luke Thompson, who at 38 is the oldest player in the tournament, also wins a starting place, at the expense of Wimpie van der Walt who also drops out of the 23. Finally, fullback William Tupou comes in for Ryohei Yamanaka who is now on the bench.
For Scotland: An emphasis on rotation and recovery has seen coach Gregor Townsend make 12 changes to the team which started Scotland’s 61-0 victory over Russia. Scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw returns to captain the side and builds on his national team record of appearances in the role. He is joined by rested flyhalf Finn Russell – the two surpassing the record set by Roy Laidlaw and John Rutherford of 35 starts together at halfback. Also back is back row Blade Thomson, lock Jonny Gray, fullback Stuart Hogg, centre Sam Johnson and prop Allan Dell – with Saracens wing Sean Maitland unable to recover sufficiently from a groin strain sustained in the Samoa game.
Head to head
In a game of this nature, every position is a crucial face-off. However, the halfback positions – flyhalf Yu Tamura and scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare (Japan) against No.10 Finn Russell and No.9 Greig Laidlaw (Scotland) will be the directors of the show. And the set pieces will also be crucial – James Moore, Luke Thompson, Jiwon Koo, Shota Horie and Keita Inagaki (Japan) against Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Willem Nel, Fraser Brown and Allan Dell (Scotland).
Prediction: If the game does go ahead – and yes, there is still some doubt – it will be a cracking end to the pool stages. It will decide who meets South Africa in the quarterfinals. It will be a close game, with just one score in it at the end, Scotland winning by five points – still getting knocked out, after failing to get the bonus point required.
Japan: 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 (captain), 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 (captain), 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, Yokohama City
Kick-off: 19.45 (10.45 GMT; 11.45 UK & Ireland time)
Expected weather: After Saturday’s heavy rain, Sunday will be windy in the morning, less humid and clear to a sunny day. However, the pitch conditions should still be heavy. High of 26°C and a low of 17°C
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)