Rugby World Cup Pool A: Scotland opener against Ireland has make or break potential
That 49-26 defeat as reigning Five Nations champions to the World Cup holders South Africa, at Murrayfield in 1999, was dispiriting, not least because such a mouth-watering fixture was played in front of a crowd 10,000 shy of full capacity, but it never looked like being fatal in a group which also contained Spain and Uruguay.
Kilted Kiwi centre John Leslie, who had played such a key role in that last ever Five Nations triumph months earlier, crumpled with a serious ankle injury and the Scots were directed towards a midweek quarter-final play-off against Samoa.
A loss to world No 1 ranked Ireland in a week’s time would set up yet another crucial battle with the Pacific Island nation, building on a World Cup rivalry that began with that famous 1991 quarter-final schooling of the tournament darlings, then still Western Samoa, at Murrayfield, and continued four years ago when skipper Greig Laidlaw literally dragged the Scots over the line to the knock-out stage at the death of a ding-dong pool battle in Newcastle.
The clash of the Celts will define how this intriguing group unfolds, with that concluding encounter between Scotland and hosts Japan in October looming as a humdinger.
Our thoughts here are chiefly focused on our own prospects, with the hope that the brilliance of Gregor Townsend’s side can find some consistency and deliver on the promise the squad has shown, amid the occasional howler, since he replaced Vern Cotter in 2017.
From the wider rugby world, much of the interest will be in how hosts Japan respond to their big chance to shine on the world stage in front of a fever-pitch home crowd and build on that famous tournament win over South Africa in Brighton four years ago.
The Brave Blossoms’ former All Blacks coach Jamie Joseph said: “We understand the responsibility that goes alongside being the host nation. I understand that it’s crucial for the ongoing development of the game in Japan that we play a brand of rugby that is exciting, attractive, great to watch and that will encourage young players to take up the game.”
Japan’s star winger Kenki Fukuoka will miss the Rugby World Cup opening match against Russia next week because of a minor calf muscle tear. Fukuoka pulled up but could be fit in time for their second Pool A game against Ireland on 28 September.
As for the Irish, they are hoping for a moment in time that will define their golden generation era.
“We’ll finally be able to focus solely on Scotland,” said veteran skipper Rory Best ahead of boarding the plane for his swansong in an emerald jersey. “We’re still nowhere near where we feel we need to be. But it’s nice getting on the plane with a bit of confidence back.”