Scotland vs Japan - RWC 2015: Scots wary of Brave Blossoms as Eddie Jones fans the flames

Cotter’s side are fresh but aware today’s opponents are on a high after Bok win

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The Independent Online

Only those holding professorships in hindsight would argue that Japan’s momentous World Cup victory over South Africa last weekend was even conceivable, let alone on the cards, and even they might not have the brass neck to open their mouths. Karne Hesketh’s overtime try against the two-time champions in Brighton stood the union game on its head and if anything remotely similar happens when the Brave Blossoms meet Scotland at Kingsholm, it will be the biggest story in the whole of international sport.

Eddie Jones, never slow on the uptake, understands this better than most. “Scotland are one of the most established of all rugby nations,” the Japan head coach said as part of his eve-of-Test address. “We’re setting out to show that the order of world rugby can change. It’s certainly a really great chance for us to show that we’re a serious rugby nation.”

Among those already taking them very seriously indeed are the Scots. “They have two strong ball-carriers in the No 8 position and they are exceptional at Nos 9, 10, 13, 14 and 15,” commented Matt Taylor, the team’s defence strategist, who might have worked his way right through the Japan squad had more time been available to him.

“We’ve been watching them for a long time now, all our focus has been on this game for the last eight weeks and we understand some of their patterns, so we won’t be sitting back and watching them play. But they’re well coached, well conditioned and they’ve just knocked off the No 3 team in the world. They played exceptionally well against the Boks.”

For the record, the back-row carriers name-checked by Taylor were the Tongan-born Amanaki Lelei Mafi, who made such an impact off the bench four days ago and starts this afternoon, and the New Zealand-born Hendrik Tui, who began the game against the South Africans and is hoping to “do a Mafi” in front of a full house in Gloucester. As for the backs singled out by Taylor, the brilliant scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and the goal-kicking full-back Ayumu Goromaru are among the most talked-about players of the tournament to date.

Japan’s heroics on the Sussex coast made a complete mess of the world rankings, although arithmetically deduced positioning is hardly a top priority for the leading nations at this precise point in proceedings. England, Wales and Ireland all moved up a place to third, fourth and fifth respectively, while the Boks slipped three places to sixth.

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Most amusingly of all, under the circumstances, was Japan’s own rise to 11th place, one rung up from the Scots. Quite what the late Bill McLaren would have made of this chaos, God alone knows.

On the face of it, there must be a strong likelihood that the positions will be reversed soon enough. Scotland have yet to play in this tournament and are therefore as fresh as daisies. Japan? For all their fitness – and on the evidence of Brighton, they are as fit as any side in the draw – they must be hanging. The effects of full-on confrontations with a side as big and physical as the Springboks tend to last weeks rather than days and while the Asian champions tapped into huge rushes of adrenalin in winning that opening match, the degree of mental application needed to complete the deed must have exhausted them.

Yet Jones, never lacking in positivity, could be heard arguing yesterday that his team were “definitely fitter than the Scots” and would “win if they were good enough”. He credited his opponents’ head coach, Vern Cotter, with reintroducing the Six Nations wooden spoonists to a “Scottish way of playing the game” but quickly fell back on his favourite pre-match tactic of winding up the enemy with a few well-chosen barbs. If Jones was a fence, you would struggle to climb over him without ripping your clothes to shreds.

“We’re playing in Gloucester, one of the great spiritual centres of the game in England,” he said. “People here know their rugby. They also wear red and white when they’re supporting their team, so they can wear red and white again this time and support us. And we know the English don’t like the Scots, so that’s another bonus.”

The West Country weather may not be as kind to Japan as the conditions in Sussex were at the weekend: the phrase “shirtsleeve order” this close to the Forest of Dean generally refers to the wearing of a lightweight anorak rather than a full-length raincoat.

What is more, Scotland played some bright attacking rugby during their recent warm-up programme and can boast match-winning talents in the full-back Stuart Hogg, the outside-half Finn Russell and the scrum-half Greig Laidlaw – the player identified by Jones as the heartbeat of the side.

Yet Japan are more confident now than at any point in a World Cup history stretching back to the inaugural tournament in 1987. Coming into this competition, they had just one solitary victory to their name from 24 matches - against the mighty Zimbabwe almost a quarter of a century ago.

In doubling that tally in Brighton, they increased their profile a hundredfold. Should they win this afternoon, they will put one foot in the quarter-finals and leave Scotland, South Africa and Samoa scrapping for a single place. Whoever would have thought it?

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