It was an odd sort of a press conference. Such was the overwhelming Japanese flavour to proceedings that it was sometimes difficult to remember that Scotland are actually taking part in this afternoon’s match.
Following Scottish rugby can be a bit of a lonely existence but you didn’t want to suffer from claustrophobia in the packed Kingsholm media centre yesterday. There were 14 video cameras pointing at the players and countless photographers. Journalists from England boosted the numbers and even a couple of French scribblers showed face, including one who insisted on quizzing everyone about the bagpipes ban as if that has anything to do with the price of onions.
And still the Japanese press corps outnumbered all the others put together several times over with more due to arrive today as soccer and baseball are finally forced off the back pages by the Brave Blossoms’ stunning win over South Africa.
The veteran Scotland hooker, Ross Ford, and defence coach Matt Taylor were both placed in front of the assembled press scrum and, if their relaxed demeanour is anything to go by, this Scottish squad are perfectly happy with their subterranean station in life.
Ford insisted, as has everyone else, that the biggest shock in World Cup history has made not a jot of difference to Scotland’s preparation which was has been focused on this very match pretty much since the end of the Six Nations.
“We are going into the game knowing what needs to be done and what areas we need to exploit,” said Ford. “Japan’s win hasn’t changed any of that. We’re still confident in our own ability. I suppose it (being out of the spotlight) takes a wee bit of focus off you. You just go about your day-to-day stuff and you don’t have to worry about pressure from the outside world.”
The point was underlined by Taylor, who felt obliged to remind everyone that two teams are the statutory minimum in any game of rugby and, while Japan might have nosed ahead of Scotland in the rankings, that particular statistic would mean nothing to each and every player on the pitch this afternoon.
“There will be two teams playing tomorrow,” said the defence guru. “The one that executes best and plays the whole 80 minutes will be the one that gets on top.
“We have been waiting for this for four years. In the last six to eight weeks all our focus has been on Japan. We’re looking forward to getting out there and putting on a good performance.
“It is a massive match for us, one we have been really looking forward to. We have been preparing well and we’re at our peak in terms of fitness. We’ve recovered well and we’ve had an excellent captain’s run.
“We’ve been very focused on Japan. We have looked at their plays in detail over the last six to eight weeks. We’ve looked at their patterns. Half of our coaching staff were at their game, so we are confident that we have looked at them and understand them.”
“They have dangers all over the park. We are very aware of that. They have a really high skill set. We’re going to be at our best defensively to combat that.”
Scotland present a few dangers themselves. They boast an advantage in power up front, which they need to utilise with rolling mauls and lineout drives. They also have an excellent specialist openside to counter the poaching instincts of the Japanese back row, and John Hardie is desperate to prove himself.
The danger lies in Scotland being sucked into a high-tempo match of running rugby, only to discover that their handling can’t quite match that of the Japanese who were almost flawless in their opener. But again head coach Vern Cotter has underlined the need to play smart rugby in the right areas of the field and Finn Russell will be asked to rein in his more adventurous streak (anyone remember the Toronto match?) at least when playing inside Scottish territory.
Instead, the Scots will attempt to heap pressure Japan and, once they have the whip hand, they will turn the screw remorselessly because Eddie Jones’ men were allowed far too many easy ‘outs’ against South Africa. Scotland have ball-carriers, both props, Ford, David Denton, Hardie and Josh Strauss off the bench, who can hurt any side, both metaphorically and in the ribs, and they have a back division that has scored tries when they are on the front foot.
The main point is that Japan shocked the Boks who were too complacent to do their homework properly and that is not a trick they can hope to repeat against Scotland who, if they weren’t already, are now fully alive to the danger. South Africa under-estimated Japan, now there is more danger of Scotland over-estimating today’s opposition who remain a limited team, albeit one with a few good tricks up their sleeve.
As usual, Japan’s coach Eddie Jones was having a bit of fun throwing mud at the Scots, especially with his comment that the Scots would lose a match unless they got points up early.
“It’s something he believes in,” said Taylor when Jones’ comments were put to him. “Everyone has an opinion on how games go. At the moment we are focused on our game plan. “Usually, it’s the team that is ahead after 80 minutes that wins the game rather than the 30th minute. We’ll be concentrating on being ahead after 80 minutes.”
As Taylor has pointed out, Japan threaten all over the field, but their most potent weapon against South Africa was surprise, and they no longer have that advantgage.
With Japan sitting one place above Cotter’s team in World Rugby’s rankings, another upset could be on the cards. But Scotland will win and, if they play somewhere close to their full potential, they will do so by a comfortable margin.