Rugby World Cup – Group A preview: Scotland, Ireland to spoil Japan’s party?
Hosts Japan face a tough task if they are to qualify ahead of either Ireland or Scotland, but they will be determined to cause an upset. Gregor Kerr previews Group A.
Looking to hit back after a disappointing and injury-ravaged Six Nations in which they picked up a solitary win, Scotland have a near full-strength squad and a point to prove now. Having picked up a comfortable 44-10 victory of Georgia in their last friendly confidence is quietly high again.
This is also a chance to erase the pain of 2015 for the Scots, who were mere minutes away from their first ever World Cup semi-final had a controversial late penalty decision against Australia gone in their favour. Apart from 2011, they have made it to the quarters of every edition they have competed in, but this pool has to be amongst their hardest tests in that time.
For perhaps the first time under his two-year stewardship Gregor Townsend came under fire for the Six Nations performance, particularly against England when Scotland were pummelled 31-0 in the first half. A simply ridiculous comeback in the second half, which eventually finished 38-38, did so much in building the faith of fans. A clear demonstration of not allowing his team to give up.
A former fly-half, his natural knack for attacking makes for entertaining and inspiring viewing, but the team’s deficiencies, especially having a poorer record on their travels than at Murrayfield, could be exposed by this approach. At times it could be labelled as nativity, this desire to play balls to the wall, high tempo rugby. He doesn’t do it out of an attempt of bravery, or to impress. Townsend genuinely believes high-octane is the only way Scotland will succeed.
Finn Russell has seen his stock rise higher and higher as the years have come. A rookie and debutant in 2015, his try against Japan of all teams, gave an indication of what was around the corner. With a growing reputation at Glasgow Warriors, Russell made the move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs in Racing 92 last summer, establishing himself as a creative focal point for club and country. It’s hard to remember that he’s still youthful at 26, considering he can be deemed as one of the leaders in this Scotland side. His battle with Johnny Sexton of Ireland will be essential viewing on the weekend.
The number one ranked team in the world, yet not quite the favourite to ultimately win in Japan, the Irish are in the same boat in Scotland in the sense that they have never made it beyond the quarter-final stage. It will be a new, unusual and perhaps uncomfortable feeling for them to be expected to challenge for the ultimate prize.
They can, of course, beat anybody on their day but suffered a 57-15 hammering by England last month and it remains to be seen if that will have had any kind of mental effect. The key game has to be against Scotland, and should they pass that test then I’d expect them to finish top of their pool. By now they’re a team who know exactly how to win.
Ireland have known little but success under the coaching of Joe Schmidt. Since taking charge in 2013, the New Zealand-born coach has won three Six Nations titles yet finds himself with a final chance of glory in Japan, as he is to step down from his position at the end of the tournament. The pressure is on for Ireland to go on their deepest run ever at this tournament, and Schmidt’s legacy will be affected by the final result for better or worse.
Former Ireland international Brian O’Driscoll described Schmidt as “the best coach” he has ever worked under. His attention to detail has no doubt played a large factor in their successes, and it will be interesting to see if they can keep this winning mentality this summer and after the departure of the Kiwi.
One of the two vice-captains for Ireland, Sexton was named the 2018 World Rugby Player of the year, largely down to his performances in their Grand Slam win the same year in which he scored 44 points in the five games. He did however miss the final warm-up match against England, in which his side were demolished 57-15. It shows the reliance on Sexton and his importance to the team, and showed he find himself unfit at any point it would be a worry. If he’s kept in peak condition, expect to see the Irish at their best.
The hosts no doubt had their moment on the big stage back in 2015, when their Eddie Jones-led side produced a stunning upset against South Africa with a last-minute try. They will want to go a step further though as the were then beaten by Scotland 45-10 and failed to make it out of their pool. This year’s meeting should be as challenging, as is the Ireland game, but should they manage to get past Samoa and Russia then they face a chance of progression.
Cheered on by a noisy home support, the Brave Blossoms in truth have little positives to build on in terms of form. Comfortably beaten by New Zealand, England and South Africa, it is hard to see them causing any upsetting defeat in their groups. But as their incredible win over the Boks four years ago proved, it’s hard to rule them out completely, especially with skipper Michael Leitch in their side, who was crucial in that win.
Having failed to reach the quarter-finals in five attempts, Samoa head into the 2019 World Cup at their lowest ever ranking of 16th, below their Pacific neighbours Samoa and Tonga. It’s been over five years since Samoa beat a Tier 1 opponent (and even then it was against Italy in 2013 and 2014), and they are unlikely to trouble Ireland and Scotland in Group A.
It’s set to be a difficult few weeks for Russia, although they will be centre stage as they open the World Cup against hosts Japan on Friday. Russia qualified ahead of Spain, Romania and Belgium to reach their second World Cup finals, having previously appeared in the 2011 tournament where they lost all four of their games and conceded 196 points. Russia warmed up for the World Cup by being thrashed 85-15 by Italy, which was hardly a promising result for the Bears.