#RWC2019: Japan ignite the World Cup and Scotland must respond

Head coach Gregor Townsend has challenged some of the less experienced players in the squad to seize the day

Japan v Ireland
Japan players are ecstatic at the final whistle as they celebrate a famous 19-12 victory over Ireland. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson
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JAPAN shoved a stick of dynamite under their own World Cup earlier today [Saturday] and blew the tournament wide open. Their sensational victory over an Ireland team which started the campaign ranked number one in the world was a triumph for the sport but can’t be viewed as good news for Scotland.

There wasn’t much breathing space for Gregor Townsend’s team as it was after last Sunday’s defeat to Ireland and now there is even less. Although there is still a lot of rugby to be played in Pool A, it seems almost certain that Scotland will need to win all three of their remaining matches – against Samoa on Monday night, Russia on 9th October and Japan four days later – with a bonus point in each match, plus prevent their opponents in the last of those games from managing either a losing or a four-try bonus point.

The key thing is that Scotland’s destiny is still in their own hands, but it is not going to be easy. Given that they were well and truly stuffed by Ireland last weekend, there is absolutely no grounds to presume that they can now get the better of the host nation – let alone win as comfortably as they are likely to need to – in front of a fervent crowd at the Yokohama International Stadium in just over two weeks’ time.

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That, however, is only something to worry about if they get through their next two matches unscathed. The immediate issue facing Scotland is that they must generate as much momentum as they can against Samoa, and even winning that one is by no means a foregone conclusion. With that in mind Townsend has decided to give youth its head.

The five changes he has made to the starting XV reduces the total cap count by 169, from 630 before last week’s game to 461 this week. The average age of the five players coming into the side [back-rowers Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie and Blade Thomson, centre Chris Harris and winger Darcy Graham] is five and a half years younger than the five players who have dropped out [John Barclay, the injured Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson, Duncan Taylor and Tommy Seymour].

Scotland, by their own admission, lacked spark against Ireland last weekend – and this is a very clear challenge to some of the up-and-coming players in the squad to show the youthful exuberance trumps hard-earned experience.

“The balance we have in the back row, we believe there is carrying in there with Magnus, Blade also offers a really good line-out option and Jamie’s our next seven having been an outstandingly consistent player for us [mostly at six] over the last 18 months,” explained the coach.

“The back-row have to stand up and carry, defend and hit contacts,” he added. “The front five have do the same and they’ve got even more responsibility around the set-piece. We’ve got to get around the Samoan defence using footwork or sheer determination to ride the tackles.”

At 28, Harris is the oldest of the newbies, but he has only been in the Scotland set-up for two years, during which time he has managed 11 caps, including an appearance off the bench last weekend, and brings the momentum of having pushed his way from being an outside bet to make the squad to an obvious selection.

“Chris has impressed us with his defensive reads at training,” explained Townsend. “Whenever he’s had an opportunity to do full contact, he’s put weight into his tackles. We thought he had a good impact into the game in attack on Sunday and he’s earned that spot. Duncan brings a lot of experience and has played well now has a role to play off the bench this week.”

The selection of Graham on the wing was surely a no-brainer. The Hawick man makes up for what he lacks in size with electrifying pace, a wicked change of direction and heart-stopping bravery when carrying, tackling or competing for the high ball.

“Every time he’s played for Scotland, he’s taken the game to the opposition,” agreed Townsend. “Not every performance has been perfect and there are things he can work on as a young player but he’s someone who goes at the opposition with ball in hand.

“He’s very aggressive defensively and he’s a learner, so he’s taken each game for Scotland and his club and got better.

“There’s a real buzz when he gets on the ball and it’s the same when Stuart Hogg gets on the ball, so it’s a great combination to have in the back three alongside Sean Maitland.”

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About David Barnes 3957 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.