SCOTLAND coach Vern Cotter has selected something close to his strongest-possible XV to start tomorrow against a Japanese team who have proved the surprise package of the World Cup.
There are just three changes from the team that started the last warm-up match, a 19-16 defeat in France.
Stuart Hogg comes in at full-back, as expected, in place of Sean Maitland, who is perhaps unlucky to drop down to the bench. The other change to the backline sees veteran winger Sean Lamont earn his 98th cap ahead of Tim Visser, who misses out altogether on the matchday squad.
Head coach Cotter’s squad selection for tomorrow’s match at Gloucester’s Kingsholm had already been made before Japan caused the biggest upset in World Cup history, which only underlines the respect that Scotland have for their Pool B opponents.
The Scotland squad watched Japan’s 34-32 defeat of South Africa on Saturday together – so what did the coach and his management team learn about their first World Cup foes?
“It didn’t really teach us anything,” Cotter replied. “It simply reinforced what we already knew. They did most things that we’ve seen but they have added a couple of other aspects. Maybe the steel in their commitment surprised one or two people.
“They showed terrific drive and determination to get the win. They could have taken the three points and settled for the draw, instead they went for the win. I think everybody admired that.
“Their overall game spoke volumes for their intentions in this World Cup. They showed tremendous focus and concentration and we need to match that. We didn’t change anything in training after the result, but it’s certainly made a few guys sit up and take notice. Seeing the result, the guys are aware of what’s coming. There will be no complacency from us in this game.”
Nor should there be. Since beating the Springboks in Brighton, Japan are now better than Scotland – and that is official.
The Brave Blossoms have jumped into 11th place in the World Rugby rankings while Scotland, who have yet to open their World Cup account, fell two rungs down the ladder to 12th postion.
Up front, Cotter has decided to stick with the same forward pack that competed so well in Paris, with the sole exception of Richie Gray. The Castres lock gives way to his second-row rival from Edinburgh, Grant Gilchrist, who is arguably more in need of games, having only recently returned from a long injury lay-off.
It may be that Gray’s height also made him susceptible to the Japanese chop tackle, which sees them dive at the opposition’s ankles, although that didn’t stop 6ft 9in Lood de Jager from barging his way through for one of the Springboks’ second-half tries.
Ryan Wilson, “kilted Kiwi” John Hardie and No 8 David Denton were named as the starting loose forwards.
South African “project” player Josh Strauss is set to make his international debut off the substitutes’ bench having only completed the three-year residency required to qualify for his adopted country on Sunday last, two days after the World Cup kicked off. A strong bench includes his Glasgow colleagues Peter Horne, Henry Pyrgos and the front row duo of Ryan Grant and Fraser Brown.
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Tommy Seymour
13 Mark Bennett
12 Matt Scott
11 Sean Lamont
10 Finn Russell
9 Greig Laidlaw (capt)
1 Alastair Dickinson
2 Ross Ford
3 WP Nel
4 Grant Gilchrist
5 Jonny Gray
6 Ryan Wilson
7 John Hardie
8 David Denton
Subs: F Brown, R Grant, J Welsh, R Gray, J Strauss, H Pyrgos, P Horne, S Maitland