The biggest game in Pool A of the Rugby World Cup is not the first one, the tournament opener between host Japan and Russia next Friday.
Nor the second, between the only Tier One teams, pool favorite Ireland and Scotland.
It’s the last one. The one that closes the pool stage: Japan vs. Scotland.
There were gasps of glee from local officials at the drawing of the pools in Kyoto in May 2017 when Japan and Scotland were reunited.
At the 2015 World Cup in England, Scotland beat Japan 45-10, costing Japan its first quarterfinal appearance.
Japan was handicapped before kickoff. The game came only four days after its historic defeat of South Africa. Against the Scots, who were playing their opening game, Japan trailed only 12-10 after 46 minutes then ran out of steam. The result had a huge effect. Scotland ultimately reached the quarterfinals on bonus points, and the one defeat made Japan the first team in tournament history to win three of four pool games but fail to advance.
Japan has tried to ensure the rematch and potential quarterfinal decider in Yokohama starts in its favor on Oct. 13. Japan will have had eight days since its previous game. Scotland will have had only four.
Here’s a closer look at Pool A:
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Rory Best
Best RWC Performance: Quarterfinals: 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011, 2015
Last 5 RWCs: 2015-QF, ’11-QF, ’07-Group Stage, ’03-QF, 1999-QF Playoffs
Outlook: Ireland will be under some pressure to confirm it is the best in the group. The pool winner avoids a quarterfinal against likely Pool B winner New Zealand, the three-time champion. Instead, the Irish may face South Africa, a two-time champion. But that’s to be worried about after Ireland’s last pool game on Oct. 12 against Samoa, a team the Irish have lost to only once. The Irish are No. 1 for the first time in rankings history, though it seems a year late. Their year was 2018, when they won the Six Nations Grand Slam, beat New Zealand at home for the first time, won a series in Australia, and lost only once all year. Irish optimism for the World Cup was through the roof. A year on, Irish optimism is guarded. They have lost three times this year, twice to England and the other to Wales. Ireland produced its best display in its last World Cup warmup, a 19-10 home win over Wales. It wasn’t pretty but the 10-man game was effective. After facing Scotland on the opening weekend, Ireland’s schedule allows it to reset and prepare to try and pass the quarterfinals for the first time.
Player to watch: CJ Stander. Coaches in South Africa told him he was too small to be a test flanker so he moved to Ireland in 2012 and debuted for the Irish in 2016, qualifying on residency. He’s become a British and Irish Lion, featured in both of Ireland’s maiden wins over New Zealand, and won a Six Nations Grand Slam. This year has been memorable for different reasons. In February, he played with a broken eye socket for an hour in the Six Nations loss to England and couldn’t chew solid food for two weeks. Last month his wife delivered their first child, a girl. Stander has 34 caps and counting, and is a regular for Ireland for his unrelenting work-rate. Size irrelevant.
Coach: Gregor Townsend
Captain: Stuart McInally
Best RWC Performance: Semifinals: 1991
Last 5 RWCs: 2015-QF, ’11-Group, ’07-QF, ’03-QF, 1999-QF
Outlook: So-so. Scotland’s record away from home is poor for a Tier One team. While strong at home, Scotland gets travel sickness as soon as it leaves Murrayfield. The Scots have won only four of their last 12 tests on the road. Beating Georgia in Tbilisi last month was their first away win in 14 months. It’s something coach Gregor Townsend has tried hard to address. But little has changed, which makes them vulnerable in Japan, a long way from home. None of their pool opponents will fear them, and some will have long memories. In the 2015 World Cup, the Scots clung to a three-point lead for the last three minutes to edge Samoa in Newcastle. Samoa is their second pool match. Then Russia, then the biggie against Japan.
Player to watch: Finn Russell. The flyhalf showed how far he’s progressed when he had the temerity to tell Townsend his strategy was wrong at halftime at Twickenham in March. Scotland trailed England 31-7. Townsend listened, other seniors piped up, and Russell helped to engineer a comeback that ended in a 38-38 draw. Russell credits his horizons being broadened at Racing 92, where he had to prove himself, freshen his game, and meet higher expectations than if he’d stayed at Glasgow. In his last test last month, he had a hand in four of the five tries against Georgia. Russell, a starting flyhalf at a second World Cup, says he backs himself even more to make a risky pass or go for a gap.
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Captain: Michael Leitch
Best RWC Performance: Narrowly missed playoffs in 2015
Last 5 RWCs: 2015-Group, ’11-Group, ’07-Group, ’03-Group, 1999-Group
Outlook: Quarterfinals or bust. In his three years in charge, Jamie Joseph has done what he can to get Japan ready. He lined up the world’s top six teams, and didn’t beat any of them, but learned what needed to be improved. Fitness and attitude were foremost. Now Joseph doesn’t have an issue with either. Barring the odd typhoon hitting the islands, he’s relishing the chance for his team to play on hard fields suited to its speed. Expectations on Japan are immense at home after the 2015 World Cup fairytale. Joseph is hoping to write a happier ending at this home World Cup with a first quarterfinals appearance. Winning the Pacific Nations Cup last month for the first time since 2014 added to local hopes, only to be tempered by the 41-7 warmup loss to South Africa. Joseph wanted a performance more than a result, and got neither; South Africa gave a blueprint for victory with an aerial attack that Japan’s back defense couldn’t handle.
Player to watch: Michael Leitch, the captain and face of Japan rugby. Because of a recurring groin issue, his game this year was only in July, against Fiji off the bench in the Pacific Nations Cup. By the third game, the final against the United States, he was back in the flow. His presence is talismanic for Japan so he’s managing the pain. Born in New Zealand with Fiji heritage, he went to Japan at age 15 on a student exchange. Rugby helped him settle. He learned Japanese, immersed himself in the culture, and was eventually considered a local in terms of rugby. The flanker made his Japan debut in 2008, became captain in 2014, and was leading them when they made their big splash at the 2015 World Cup. He will turn 31 during the pool stage at this World Cup, his third. Reaching their first quarterfinals isn’t enough for Leitch: “Japan’s chances of getting out of the pool stage are very high but it won’t be easy. Our main goal is not (just) to get out of the pool stage, but to keep on winning.”
Coach: Steve Jackson
Captain: Jack Lam
Best RWC Performance: Quarterfinals: 1991, 1995
Last 5 RWCs: 2015-Group, ’11-Group, ’07-Group, ’03-Group, 1999-QF Playoffs
Outlook: Another one-win World Cup. Samoa’s best tournaments were before rugby turned openly professional, and the transition has been a double-edged sword for the tiny islands. On the one hand, dozens of Samoans are plying their trade in leagues all over the world, and on the other, bringing the best of them together is hard. Players are spread over seven countries; 19 of the 31-man squad are in Europe. The individual talent is undoubtedly there, but it is all about getting on the same wavelength, especially in set-pieces, a recurring weakness. They haven’t beaten a Tier One team in more than five years, but then their chances are few. When Manu Samoa lost to Australia this month in Parramatta and debuted prop Michael Alaalatoa and scrumhalf Scott Malolua, it was their first Tier One opponent in two years. Last year, they had only seven tests, and two of them were World Cup qualifiers against Germany. Italy had 11. Unlike previous World Cups, the schedule is somewhat kinder to Samoa; no more four-day gaps. The smallest this time is five.
Player to watch: Tusi Pisi. At age 37, the flyhalf has been summoned for a third World Cup. He made his debut in Tokyo against Japan two months before the 2011 World Cup but represented the Pacific Island Warriors five years before that. When he played against Australia this month, it was his first test since November. But, then, Pisi seems to pop up in all kinds of places. Born in Samoa and settled in New Zealand, he played in the New Zealand Under-21s but struggled to break into Super Rugby. He went to Toulon, then to Suntory in Japan. The Hurricanes and Sunwolves gave him Super Rugby, Pat Lam drew him to Bristol, and he’s back in Japan again.
Coach: Lyn Jones
Captain: Vasily Artemyev
Best RWC Performance: Never made playoffs
Last 5 RWCs: 2015-DNQ, ’11-Group, ’07-DNQ, ’03-DNQ, 1999-DNQ
Outlook: Bleak. Russia didn’t win a match at its only previous appearance in 2011, and is not expected to this time. Russia replaced Romania in the World Cup in May 2018 after the Oaks, Spain, and Belgium were sanctioned for fielding ineligible players in the Rugby Europe Championship. Former Wales flanker Lyn Jones took over as coach and has spent one year trying to squeeze in a four-year plan. Fitness has been a main focus. The warmups didn’t draw confidence. Italy thrashed them 85-15, after which the Bears stayed in Italy, of all places, to work on weaknesses, notably defense out wide. Then there were losses in Moscow to English second-division side Jersey Reds and Irish province Connacht. Their schedule in Japan is tough: Russia meets Samoa just four days after playing the tournament opener against Japan. Ireland and Scotland are met only six days apart. Jones merely hopes his players are competitive. “They are very proud people,” he says. “They just want their country to do well. They totally understand where they are in rugby, which is nice. There are no inflated opinions or grandeur.”
Players to watch: Vasily Artemyev, the captain and fullback, was sent to Dublin as a teen to learn English, picked up rugby and ended up scoring a try against Ireland in the 2011 World Cup. Andrei Ostrikov, a lock, was scouted at the Junior World Cup and has earned contracts with Agen, Sale, and this upcoming season at Grenoble. Unlike those two, Kirill Gotovtsev will make his World Cup debut. He represented Russia in wrestling then two-man bobsled in hope of making the Olympics. He switched late to rugby and made his test debut in 2015.
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