There are some statutory lines that players wheel out at almost every opportunity: “We’ll take it one game at a time”. “We will attempt to control the controllable”, and, my favourite: “We are focusing on our own game rather than worrying about the opposition.”
Well, listening to Fraser Brown talk at the team hotel, Scotland are not only worrying about the opposition but they have been monitoring Japan for months now like some sort of high performance stalker.
“We have been looking at Japan since the start of the summer,” says the hooker. “Matt Taylor and the other coaches have been looking at Japan, looking at all four teams since the end of the Six Nations. Our sole focus through the whole summer, even the warm-up games was to prepare ourselves for our first game against Japan.
“We have been preparing for Japan for quite a long time so guys have had games to look at, specifically the Pacific Nations Cup, line outs, scrums, set plays. I think everyone is pretty well versed in knowing exactly what we are going to get.”
Four years ago Andy Robinson’s side lost any momentum they took into the tournament with a turgid opening game against Georgia, who made Scotland sweat without ever threatening an upset.
He has no World Cup experience to fall back upon but it seems as if Vern Cotter is perfectly willing to learn from other people’s mistakes. If Scotland do fall to the Cherry Blossoms on Wednesday, it won’t be through a want of intelligence. So what, exactly, did the spies uncover about the next World Cup hosts?
“Japan are very well structured,” says Brown, “they have a very good set-piece, they have a good, quick line out and try to dictate the tempo at lineouts. They have a good solid scrum… I think they will see that as a major strength of theirs and will try to use that as a weapon to get themselves into the game.
“They love quick ball, especially if they have [Fumiaki] Tanaka at nine, they will use him to try to get the game going. They are very dangerous round that GSA [the guard and shield area] we call it, the ruck area. And with him running and making good picks, they have a lot of good players. They have [Michael] Leitch [the captain] who will really lead the team.
“They have big, powerful runners in the back row. They have got a lot of good players everywhere and will try to play that fast-tempo, quick game and try to get their ball carriers and their quick guys into the game. They will try to run the game as quick as they can, they don’t want the game to slow up.”
Brown is right to single out Tanaka as a threat. The little scrum-half, at 5ft 5in, the smallest man at the World Cup, plays his rugby in New Zealand. He was the first Japanese player to play Super Rugby when Tony Brown, his coach from the Panasonic Wild Knights, signed him first for Otago and then for the Highlanders.
Tanaka is a crowd favourite in Dunedin and his option taking at the base of the breakdown, run, pass, kick, will be key to Japan’s success against Scotland.
“We like playing that quick tempo game as well,” Brown continues. “It is not about slowing the game up or changing the tempo of the game it is about dictating when we want to play quickly and when they can’t play quickly. It is not about turning it into a slow game or trying to kill the game, it is about dictating at what point we play during the game.”
The hooker insists that everyone, not just him, has done their homework on the opposition, who are in for a surprise if they think they will be able to take the Scots by surprise. He talks with authority about Japan’s convincing 40-point win over Uruguay and the even more impressive 20-point victory against Canada. So how do you counter the only Asian team in the tournament?
“Our speed in contact, our aggression in contact is probably going to be the most important thing for us in the whole World Cup,” says Brown.
It looks like we can expect a full-blooded affair at Kingsholm come Wednesday afternoon.