YOKOHAMA – The Japan vs. Scotland clash in Yokohama was always one of the most talked about fixtures when the draw for the Rugby World Cup was made in Kyoto in 2017.
And so it has proved, though sadly not always for the reasons most were hoping for.
As was expected all those months ago, Pool A has become a three-way shootout with Japan, Scotland and Ireland vying for the two quarterfinal spots.
The arrival of Typhoon Hagibis and its ramifications, however, have overshadowed Sunday’s game, with the Scottish Rugby Union threatening World Rugby with legal action if the game is canceled and Scotland is prevented from having a shot at a spot in the quarterfinals.
Japan heads into the final weekend with 14 points, while Ireland, which plays Samoa later Saturday, have 11 and Scotland 10 points.
Many variables abound involving bonus points and points difference, but in its simplest form, if Ireland beats Samoa, that would leave Scotland needing to beat Japan to make the last eight.
But if Sunday’s game is called off, it would be declared a 0-0 draw with both sides getting two points and the Scots on the first flight home.
Scotland said the game should be played a day later if canceled. But World Rugby reminded the SRU late Friday night that “along with the 19 other teams, the Scottish Rugby Union signed the Rugby World Cup 2019 terms of participation, which clearly state in Section 5.3: ‘Where a pool match cannot be commenced on the day in which it is scheduled, it shall not be postponed to the following day, and shall be considered as cancelled.’ “
Whether the game will be played in front of a full house at International Stadium Yokohama or behind closed doors will be up to the authorities once they have assessed any damage and the potential risk of having so many people gather so soon after one of the biggest storms to ever hit Japan.
World Rugby said Saturday it will conduct venue inspections for Sunday’s matches “as soon as practically possible after the typhoon has passed and an update will be published as soon as that process has been undertaken in the morning.”
For all concerned it will be a nervous wait, and particularly for the players as they try to remain focused on what coach Jamie Joseph has called the biggest match in Japanese rugby history.
On Saturday morning before the typhoon vented its full fury on the nation’s capital, the Brave Blossoms held a final training run at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
Not only was it a good chance to experience the soggy conditions the teams are likely to encounter on Sunday, but it was also indicative of the Japanese approach.
Japan’s fitness has played a major role in them winning three games, as has their discipline and defense.
“Discipline is crucial when the game gets tight,” said Michael Leitch, who is back to full fitness and will lead the team on the day.
“(Scrumhalf Yutaka) Nagare has been really aware of it this week — he lost his temper with the team in a recent training session (over discipline issues), so we’ve been preparing well in that area.”
The two teams have met seven times at full-test match level with the Scots winning all seven.
The two most recent encounters saw the hosts defeated 26-13 and 21-16 in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, and Tokyo, respectively, and three previous encounters at World Cups (in 1991, 2003 and 2015) have seen the men in blue score 17 tries and concede just three.
Four years ago, Scotland was the only team to beat Japan and prop Keita Inagaki is using that memory as a way of motivating himself for the game.
“I have never forgotten that feeling of defeat,” he said. “We played two tests against them a year later and I still remember the pain from those, too.”
As they did against Ireland, Inagaki and his fellow forwards will need to take the Scottish pack out of the equation and provide plenty of good ball for the backs to exploit.
And they will need to play without the nerves that plagued them in the opening game against Russia and for spells against Samoa.
“Having courage is most important,” said Leitch. “There are those who get frightened as they near the try line, chickening out when they are faced with pressure. It’s important to prepare to face up to the pressure.”
Joseph has spent the week reminding his player what is at stake.
“Lots of firsts this weekend: the first chance we have to make the top eight, the first chance to beat Scotland,” he said. “When you haven’t done something before it becomes hugely motivating, exciting and challenging for the team”
The Scotland coaches and players, like Japan, hope they can do their talking on the pitch.
“Japan are top of the group and have played really good rugby. We just want the game to go ahead and qualify for the quarterfinals on merit,” said scrumhalf and captain Greig Laidlaw.
“Japan have improved greatly over the last four years and since we traveled here in 2016. You can see the growth in their game. Beating teams like Ireland does not happen by chance.”
As flyhalf Finn Russell pointed out, “There was a lot of hype around this game before we got here, knowing it would be the final group game. Japan have a lot of momentum and support behind them; we know what to expect.”