VERN Cotter suspects Japan will sacrifice their Rugby World Cup opening match against South Africa and focus all their energies on shocking Scotland.
The “Brave Blossoms” kick off Pool B on Saturday 19 September against the mighty Springboks in Brighton and then face a tight four-day turnaround before facing the Scots in what will be the latter’s first tournament hit-out at Kingsholm Stadium in Gloucester on 23 September.
Speaking at the squad’s Pyrenean training camp in Font Romeu this week, the Scotland coach said he expects his counterpart Eddie Jones, the former Wallabies chief, to rest his key players for that daunting clash with the two-time world champions so they are fresh for a ferocious crack at the Scots in the West Country.
With Japan building towards their historic first Asian staging of the World Cup in four years’ time, they are desperate to make a statement in England later this year and record a breakthrough victory over a major side, and this year’s Six Nations wooden spooners will be viewed as a tempting scalp.
Despite featuring in all seven stagings of the global event, the 2019 hosts have only managed one win – against Zimbabwe in 1991 – and two draws, both with Canada, in 2007 and 2011.
Cotter said: “Japan have openly said that they’re targeting us. They play South Africa first and they’ll probably throw that game away and look at us.
“So we can’t make any errors there: there’s no complacency whatsoever. It will be so important to focus on that one. The first two games will be critical.”
It is generally believed that the lacklustre and edgy wins in the opening games against Romania and Georgia four years ago did much to suck the momentum out of the campaign in New Zealand and left Andy Robinson’s side going into the crunch clashes with Argentina and England scratching around for form.
There is a similar dynamic to Scotland’s pool this time around with, on paper, the two easier games coming before potentially pivotal showdowns with South Africa and Samoa in Newcastle.
The way the World Cup schedules work against the so-called minnows has been a simmering bone of contention for a few tournaments now, with the big nations getting far more rest days between games by traditionally being held for TV-friendly weekend slots, but organisers have made moves to address that this time.
Higher seeded nations will have midweek games and Cotter’s men themselves face a Wednesday-Sunday turnaround for their opening two encounters. If Japan do field a weakened team against the Springboks then Scotland are in no position to do much grumbling following the infamous episode in 2007 when Frank Hadden did precisely the same thing in a 40-0 defeat by New Zealand at Murrayfield ahead of the closing pool clash with Italy, which was narrowly won 18-16 to claim a quarter-final place.
Scotland have won all four official cap encounters with Japan, including victories in the World Cups of 1991 and 2003 and a 100-8 thrashing at McDiarmid Park in autumn 2004. The last clash between the nations was a 42-17 win for the Scots, which included a brace of tries by Tommy Seymour, in November 2013.
The Japanese did defeat a Scotland XV that included Sean Lineen, Iwan Tukalo and Damien Cronin, 28-24 in Tokyo 26 years ago.
Jones has added former England skipper Steve Borthwick to his coaching team and Japan will prepare intensely for this year’s tournament.
With the match against Scotland at Kingsholm, the Blossoms’ cherry and white hoops may well endear them to the Gloucester locals too, though if Greig Laidlaw is in the dark blue some of those may be won back over to the Scottish cause.
Cotter is certainly expecting a testing baptism to World Cup rugby and this is why he believes the intensity of the preparation, in which the squad has worked hard in the mountains of France this week, will be vital.
“We have to think about what Japan are doing now,” said the Kiwi. “We know they’ll be prepared. The Americans won’t be far away in the amount of work they are doing and we have to do the same.
“We’ve got to be pushing ourselves. We can’t become comfortable.”
Of course it is all about striking a balance between “undercooked” and “overcooked” when it comes to tournaments like this. Concerns have been expressed about the increased possibility of injuries thrown up by having four warm-up games and Cotter admits it is something that keeps him awake at night.
“I always worry about that type of thing, but in saying that it’s an opportunity for players to showcase their improvements and express themselves after a hard pre-season,” he added.
“There will be players who perhaps play for the first time for Scotland in those games. We’ll be juggling to make sure we get the balance right.
“I inherited that arrangement. I think it had been decided a few years back. It’s in place, we can’t change it, so we just get on with it. It’s an opportunity for a few players to step up.”