As soon as Vern Cotter decided to select a very strong XV to start against Japan tomorrow there was little doubt that Edinburgh midfielder Matt Scott would be wearing the No.12 shirt.
It has been a couple of injury-ravaged years since he was at his peak but, in the absence of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor, the physical presence that Scott brings to the Scottish midfield is priceless.
It has been a lengthy wait for everyone involved with Scotland, one of the last teams to get under way in the World Cup, but at least the start is in sight and it can’t come too soon for the centre.
“It’s been tough watching game after game and I’m just waiting to get out there,” said Scott. “I must have replayed the game in my head about one hundred times, I’ve thought about every scenario, so I’m massively excited.
“You can see the quality from the first few games and the excitement around every game I can’t wait to sample that. You can see the quality from every team has gone up – I don’t think you are going to see the 140-0 score you may have seen in previous tournaments. Every team is competitive and you can see the month or so the teams have been together has brought the standard up.”
Inevitably, the conversation turned to tomorrow’s opposition, who are enjoying a rare stint in the glare of the media spotlight right now, which may not be a bad thing for Scotland, who are quietly going about their business under the radar.
Like pretty much everyone else in the Scotland squad, Scott insists that he was expecting the Japanese to prove tough competitors, although he probably didn’t expect himself to get so wrapped up in Saturday’s match. Instead of analysing it from the perspective of an opponent, Scott found himself rooting energetically for the underdog like several million others around the globe.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been that emotionally involved in a game,” he admitted. “I was really rooting for Japan just in the way a neutral fan would. I was rooting for the underdog and it was a fantastic end to the game.
“We had one eye on our game against them as well and our analysis of the Japanese has been spot on. We expected them to have a quick ball out of the scrum, pick and go around the rucks and you saw from the first line break they had there was quick ball out the scrum and pick and go.
“At the end, in my head I was going, ‘go for the try, go for the try!’ It was really funny, I got really emotionally involved in the game, just as a rugby fan because I think that game will be remembered for a long time. It’s a rugby classic.”
Scott’s midfield partnership with Glasgow’s Mark Bennet is brimming with potential, but they have yet to peak in partnership if only because the pair have little experience of playing alongside each other. Once or twice in the build up to this World Cup they looked like they were singing from different hymn sheets as passes went astray or the receiver drifted in front of the passer. They will need to be slick and accurate tomorrow because a plethora of South African turnovers kept Japan in the game when they should have been dead and buried.
While not dismissing the threat from Japan, both of Scotland’s midfielders will feel confident in their defence and equally certain that they can do some damage with the ball in hand. Scott is relishing going mano-a-mano with the slight Japanese standoff.
“Most teams try to exploit that ten-twelve channel,” he said, “which is why Japan sometimes put their 10 of the edge of the lineout and put Michael Leitch (Japan’s captain and a flanker) where the first receiver would usually stand from the lineout, to cover the ten basically. You look to exploit where teams are weak and they obviously try to hide their ten off the back of lineouts for a reason, so we’ll hopefully get a crack at him.”
For all their heroics last Saturday, Japan’s tackles statistics suggest that some old weaknesses remain. Japan attempted 127 tackles throughout the match, but they were deemed to have missed a whopping 26 of them. That equates to 20 per cent, or one in five of all tackles attempted, when teams need to be in single figures to put a smile on the face of the defence coach.
The other issue is recovery, or the lack of it. Japan showed superb conditioning to dominate the final ten minutes. With a short-handed South Africa team on the ropes, the so called “minnows” enjoyed 96 per cent of possession in that final flourish. The problem is that Japan will have had just three days to recover before taking to Kingsholm tomorrow to face the Scots. What effect that will have is anyone’s guess but you would bet the bank against Japan enjoying 96 per cent of possession in the final ten minutes of tomorrow’s match.
“It takes a couple of days to get over it (a Test match) fully,” said Scott. “We are used to training straight after games, but to play a full test match at this level where the standard is increased even from a normal international is something of an unknown entity. I don’t really know the answer for sure?”
Apart from doing the diametric opposite of what the Springboks did, what does Scott think is the key to getting Scotland’s World Cup campaign off to a winning start?
“The key thing against Japan is stopping their momentum in defence and being accurate so that we don’t give away stupid penalties,” he stated.
When he puts it like that is seems almost simple, although Scott knows Scotland will have a scrap on their hands.