|Rugby World Cup Pool A: Scotland v Japan|
|Venue: International Stadium, Yokohama Date: Sunday 13 October Kick-off: 11:45 BST|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
In the wake of Scotland’s thumping victory over Russia, the media room at the Shizuoka Stadium morphed into a convention for hapless meteorologists, a place where Typhoon Hagibis got a whole lot more air-time than Hurricane Horne.
The storm raging across the western Pacific Ocean drew more chat than the scrum-half’s hat-trick. When people spoke of intensity and things moving with astonishing speed they weren’t talking about Scotland’s forward pack or Darcy Graham’s excellence, they were on about the gathering menace that is Hagibis and the impact it may have on the great showdown between Scotland and Japan in Yokohama on Sunday.
Rumour followed rumour. Theory followed theory. One chap was crouched over an app that seemed to be monitoring Hagibis like one of those internet Santa trackers on Christmas Eve. «It looks like it’s approaching Guam,» he said. «Saipan next. They’ve declared an emergency.» It was all utterly surreal.
Scotland beat Russia 61-0 and were two slack forward passes away from adding another 10 or 14 points to that total. George Horne got three tries but it could have been four. Adam Hastings got two tries but it could have been three. The young half-backs were excellent, but the story of the night was the confusion. Hagibis is still days away from the Japan mainland but already it’s causing mayhem.
The Scottish management were saying nothing, possibly because they knew nothing or because they knew something but have been sworn to silence by World Rugby. Will the game go ahead on Sunday as planned? ‘No comment’. Will it be moved to Monday? ‘It would be wrong to speculate’. Will it be moved to another city? ‘There are a range of contingencies’. Will it be abandoned altogether thereby ensuring Scotland are out of the World Cup? ‘There’ll be a statement on Thursday’.
Scotland supporters left Shizuoka in a merry old state but for those planning to kick-on for Yokohama this lack of clarity was challenging. There was nobody around to shed any daylight on what was going on. Japan promised a unique World Cup and that’s what we’ve got. Gregor Townsend spent part of his post-match press conference talking about this violent, near-biblical tempest heading our way. You don’t hear that kind of chat at Murrayfield.
On the field, Scotland got the job done with little fuss and a lot of professionalism. They hit Russia early, then hit them again, then kept hitting them pretty much all the way to the end. You felt for the underdogs because this was clearly a game too far for them. They were out on their feet from early on. Having Scotland running at them relentlessly must have been torture. They just didn’t have the energy to push back the tide.
Scotland nilled Russia just like they nilled Samoa in Kobe. We’re not talking high calibre opposition here but keeping any opponent scoreless is a badge of honour to a professional rugby player. Speaking later, it wasn’t just the nine tries they were talking about, it was the shut-out, too. That meant as much as any of the scores they created.
That kind of thing builds self-belief, it adds momentum, it creates a positivity in the squad which they’ll now take into the Japan game even if the team which plays is radically different to the one that beat Russia. Townsend made 14 changes for Shizuoka and he’s likely to reverse them for Yokohama. Graham is likely to be the only man who keeps his place.
Townsend doesn’t have major dilemmas in the selection of his team, but his bench might alter somewhat. Pete Horne might not have played a second of this World Cup before Wednesday but he was effective and might squeeze into the 23 ahead of Duncan Taylor, who’s still fighting to regain his excellence of old.
If Horne makes it – covering centre and fly-half – there might be a thought given to bringing in the X-factor of Blair Kinghorn as well. Kinghorn had mistakes in his game against Russia but he’s got that game-breaking quality, that knack of busting a defence and getting in behind.
It might mean that Hastings loses out – cruel if that’s the case given his stellar performance against Russia – but Kinghorn is also versatile. He can play wing and full-back and has been devastating in both positions at times. If Scotland are in desperate need of a try late on against Japan then Kinghorn would be a useful citizen to have. Townsend doesn’t have a whole lot to ponder in his 23, but the make-up of his replacements will give him something to think about.
Horne the younger is one of those who will return to the bench for the Japan game, but he is coming of age in this tournament. After his hat-trick he now has six tries in his nine appearances for Scotland. That’s a try in 66% of the Tests he’s played. With Glasgow, he has 22 tries in 42 games – a try in 52% of his matches, a higher percentage than anybody at the club in recent times.
For club and country he has 28 tries in 51 games – an astonishing strike-rate. Horne won’t start against Japan, but he remains a lethal weapon off the bench. He’s like a truffle dog with his ability to sniff out chances. Time was when Scotland’s creators-in-chief began and largely ended with Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, but now there’s a growing wit factor in this squad.
Horne has magic in him and so has Graham. We’ve not seen the best of Kinghorn yet but there’s a very serious rugby player in there. Magnus Bradbury got some more game-time into him against Russia. Jamie Ritchie wasn’t needed but he’s becoming a towering presence in this set-up now. There looks to be a shifting of the guard these past few weeks.
Townsend planned this World Cup with all the detail of a man preparing to launch a rocket, but look what’s happened. His first-choice midfield of two weeks ago has now been broken up, Chris Harris taking over from Taylor. Tommy Seymour played ahead of Graham against Ireland but Graham is now undroppable.
The go-to back-row of late September was John Barclay, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson. That’s all gone. Now, in Watson’s absence through injury, it’s become Bradbury, Blade Thomson and Ritchie. Those three have only played one competitive game together and still have it all to prove, but they’re an exciting group capable of going toe-to-toe with Japan, who have a terrific and hugely influential back row of their own.
The speculation about the game – where and when and possibly if it will happen – is going to carry on until Thursday when World Rugby will make their call. Let’s cross our fingers and hope the rugby gods defeat the weather gods and this pulse-quickening game goes ahead in a stadium of noise and colour and in the kind of atmosphere that befits what should be an incredible occasion.