Brave Blossoms promise tough battle on home soil
Much-improved Japan will not be easy ride for Scots on back of historic World Cup
COTLAND’S trip to Japan may not have the glory or prestige of their British and Irish rivals who are on three-match tours to the Southern Hemisphere superpowers, but the Scottish players are taking their games just as seriously.
Those who were around nine months ago know that Japan gave as good as they got in the World Cup clash until they ran out of steam. Now the Asians are at home in the hot, clammy conditions they are used to at the Toyota City Stadium, and though there is a steadfast party line from the hosts that revenge plays no part in their thinking, it’s hard to believe them.
After all, that defeat by Scotland, their only one in the last 12 games, was arguably as much the result of unfortunate scheduling as the quality of rugby the Scots played. Four days after achieving their biggest and most historic win over South Africa, Japan could not keep going for 80 minutes and fell apart in the final quarter.
It was enough to make sure Japan did get one dubious reward: a place in the record books as the only team in World Cup history to win three pool games and still be eliminated – Scotland and South Africa won the same number of matches but picked up bonus points to pip the Brave Blossoms to the quarter finals.
Revenge? You’d better believe it. The home side have changed or lost more than half the team that played in those memorable World Cup games but the tales of injustice are never going to die that quickly.
“This is going to be the first game for the new Japanese side,” was the verdict from Hitoshi Ono, the veteran lock. “We are the challengers in this game. Many people think Scotland are going to win – the same as happened with the South Africa side in the last World Cup. In a good way I would like to break everybody’s hopes, just like we did to South Africa.”
It’s worth pointing out that when Ono, now 38, came into the team 12 years ago, Japanese rugby was at such a low ebb that they went down to a 100-8 defeat in McDiarmid Park in Perth. There is no chance of a repeat. “We have to battle well, in the scrum we have to get low and work as an eight together,” added Ono. “We have to work for 80 minutes. At the lineout we need to use our speed. We are not easy targets so we need to use our speed.”
Which is exactly what Scotland have been expecting from Japan ever since they started preparing for this trip. “The impressive thing about Japan is the quality they are producing,” was the verdict from Jonathan Humphreys, the forwards coach.
“There are a few [players] missing but the boys coming in seem equally adept. They are playing the same game and are producing the same threats. We are well aware of how this game is going to go and how it is going to be – a very, very tight affair.”
To counter that, Scotland are going to have to dominate possession and win the set-piece battle, making the raw, inexperienced talent of Stuart McInally at hooker crucial.
It is less than three years since he embarked on his project to turn himself into a front-row player, after coming close to caps as a No.8, and only 16 months since his first professional game in his new role.
“It’s a really good opportunity,” McInally said. “In the Six Nations I was restricted to time off the bench which was good for me. It was very frustrating to miss the World Cup in the manner it happened with the injury coming so late on. I am just glad I managed to recover and take a lot of confidence from being involved.”
His problem is that he is quite tall for a hooker at 6ft 3in, and up against the group that likes to scrum lowest of any international unit out there, a tricky task for somebody as new to the technicalities as he is.
“But if Scotland can win enough ball to bring him into the game as a dynamic ball carrier, they will win. It is that simple. I certainly like to carry,” said McInally. “I feel that is how I can get into the game best. It is something I possibly forgot about when I first moved to hooker and would concentrate on lineouts and scrums and start to forget why I actually moved and why there was a potential to make it work.”
The impressive thing about Japan is the quality they are producing . . . They are playing the same game and are producing the same threats
OPPORTUNITY: At 6ft 3in Stuart McInally is tall for a hooker but is looking to put his carrying abilities to the test in Japan