Japan head coach Jamie Joseph on Friday blasted suggestions his team is running scared ahead of Sunday’s Rugby World Cup showdown against Scotland, insisting the Brave Blossoms are ready to prove they belong in the quarterfinals if the typhoon-threatened match goes ahead.
Japan is preparing to face Scotland in Yokohama having won all three of its matches so far at the tournament, beating Russia and Samoa with bonus-point victories and stunning then-world-No.-2 Ireland to top the group heading into the final round of pool-stage games.
But the imminent arrival of Typhoon Hagibis has cast a dark shadow over the game — set for a 7:45 p.m. kickoff — with tournament organizers announcing Thursday that an announcement over whether it would go ahead or not would be made on Sunday morning.
A cancellation — considered a scoreless draw worth two points to each team — would send Japan into the quarterfinals for the first time and eliminate Scotland, prompting some media outlets to suggest that such a turn of events would suit Joseph and his team.
But the coach shot that notion down in a furious broadside on Friday, insisting his players are desperate to get out on the pitch and prove they belong at rugby’s highest level.
“In the past few days, through the media reports that I’ve read, I feel they’ve undermined the achievements of the Japanese national team,” said Joseph, as he named his team for the game.
“We’ve played and won three test matches, and that has put us in the best position within our pool. I’d like to remind everybody it hasn’t been a fluke. It’s been a lot of hard work by a lot of people.
“Everyone in our squad, players and coaches, want to play the test match. We all want to earn the right to be considered one of the elite teams in the world.
“It’s important for us to wake up on Monday morning and understand we are either a worthy top-eight team or we’re not. My team is motivated by achieving something that is great, not avoiding an embarrassment.”
Joseph made four changes to the team that beat Samoa 38-19 in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on Oct. 5, handing fit-again winger Kenki Fukuoka his first start of the tournament and welcoming fullback William Tupou back from injury. Hooker Shota Horie and lock Luke Thompson also return to the starting lineup.
Scotland has recovered from a dismal 27-3 opening loss to Ireland to beat Samoa and Russia in its next two matches by a combined score of 105-0, but Joseph believes Japan will lack no motivation in what he described as “the most significant match” in the team’s history.
“That’s because we’re in a position now where we’re top of the table,” Joseph said. “We have an opportunity to win the pool and, if we can win on Sunday, go confidently into the quarterfinals, and that’s never ever happened before. So, in my mind, without doubt that would be the most significant match that Japan has got itself into.
“We know that we’re playing a very good rugby team. They’re very experienced, they’ve got a lot of X-factor. It’s a team that Japan has never beaten before, so there’s a lot of firsts this weekend.
“It’s the first chance that we’ve had to make the top eight, and it will be the first chance that we have to beat Scotland. So, when you’ve never done something before, it becomes hugely motivating and exciting for the team.”
Tournament organizers on Thursday canceled two games due to the expected impact of Typhoon Hagibis — England against France in Pool C in Yokohama, and New Zealand against Italy in Pool B in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture.
Japan No. 8 Kazuki Himeno said he and his teammates have been trying to prepare for Sunday’s game as normal, and refused to be drawn on the prospect of the game being called off on Sunday morning.
“Of course, the typhoon is coming but that’s not something we can control,” said Himeno.
“Personally, and for the whole squad, we just have to keep doing the things we have always done. We have to understand clearly what we have to do to beat Scotland. We have to prepare ourselves physically and mentally in order to be 100 percent for the match.”
Japan and Scotland also met at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, with Scotland winning 45-10 and ultimately progressing to the quarterfinals at the Brave Blossoms’ expense.
Three players in Japan’s starting lineup for Sunday’s match — Horie, Keita Inagaki and Yu Tamura — also started against the Scots four years ago, and Inagaki said he and his teammates are determined to set the record straight.
“The atmosphere in the squad is very good and very positive,” said the prop forward. “We’re excited about the match and we can’t wait to start.
“Of course, there are some nerves but I think it’s nervousness in a good way. I think there is a positive tension in the squad.”
He added: “I really feel that everyone in the squad is determined to do well in this match.”