On the eve of what he called a “pivotal match” for Scottish rugby when they play against Japan in Gloucester today, the veteran Scottish hooker Ross Ford made a rare admission that the team had targeted the quarter-finals of this World Cup as a minimum requirement.
“We have got to get to the knockout stages,” said Ford when asked what would constitute a successful World Cup. “That is what we have set our sights on and then take it on a game by game basis.
Scotland face the darlings of this World Cup after Japan produced the mother and father of all upsets against the Springboks last Saturday. They have found themselves at the centre of a media storm ever since and it continued unabated yesterday. Japan have now leap frogged Scotland in the World Rugby rankings and this afternoon’s game, which was never going to be mistaken for a game of pub rugby, has grown in importance as Ford conceded.
“It’s the opening game of the World Cup and it’s about building momentum off the back of it,” said Ford. “So from that point of view it becomes a pivotal game for us. You want to get off to a good start.
“You could see from the way the game unfolded on Saturday that Japan never gave up, they kept coming back at South Africa. It was constant pressure so we need to make sure we’re on the ball all the time and not drifting away. We need to deal with the here and now, go phase by phase and we can’t allow ourselves to drop off.”
When asked what lessons Scotland had taken from Japan’s opening victory Ford pinpointed the Springboks’ inability to finish off stubborn opposition when it seemed like they were about to be counted out.
“You could see with the way the game unfolded that the Japanese never gave up, they kept coming back at South Africa. They would score and Japan would come right back off the kick off.
“We have got to make sure we are on the ball all the time, not drifting away thinking about things that have not happened we have to be in the here and now, go phase by phase, set piece by set piece and constantly keep the standard, you cannot drop off. That is the biggest thing, being in the moment the whole time.”
Scotland’s South African-born prop WP Nel, meanwhile, insists he is not out to avenge the Springboks defeat on behalf of his compatriots.
The 29-year-old hails from the Northern Cape and only qualified for his adopted nation last month after spending three years with Edinburgh, but he insists Japan’s victory has not featured into his thinking.
Tthe tighthead – always more comfortable conversing in Afrikaans than English – said: “I don’t think there are scores to settle. I’m playing for my Scotland team so there are no extra emotions.
“It’s just a game I want to win. It’s not about what happened at the weekend. It’s just about two teams that want to win.”
Japan head coach Jones – who revealed on Monday that he was quitting his post after the tournament, ironically to move to South Africa after agreeing a deal with the Cape Town-based Stormers – is famed for his mind-games and has already taken aim at Scotland.
After insisting the opening half an hour will be crucial, he claimed: “If you look at the Scots’ record over the last 15 years, you’ll see that unless they get a lead, they struggle to win matches.”
But Scotland assistant coach Duncan Taylor refuted those claims, saying: “That’s something that he believes in. I suppose everyone has opinions on how games go. But usually by the end of the 80 minutes the team that is ahead wins the game - rather than who’s ahead after 30 minutes.
“We’ll be concentrating on making sure we’re ahead at the 80th minute.”
Perhaps the biggest factor going in Scotland’s favour is the four-day turnaround between Japan’s first and second matches. Jones has made six changes, but Taylor is confident the Scots can handle whatever their opponents throw at them.
Taylor said: “When we look right across their backline – nine, 10, 14, 15 – they are exceptional players and our guys know that. We will have to be at the top of our game defensively.
“But we are confident we can do that job. We have prepared exceptionally well. We understand some of their patterns but we won’t be sitting there watching them play. We’ll be going at them defensively.”
South Africa were expected to dominate Japan at the set-piece but were caught out as the Brave Blossoms held their own at scrum and line-out.
However, Nel – who has been brought in by head coach Vern Cotter to add solidity to the Scots’ front row – believes there are weaknesses Scotland can exploit.
“If you closely watch the game, Japan were under pressure in the scrum as well,” he claimed. “I don’t think they had the upper-hand all the time.
“We’ve had a close look at their scrums and we know what they are doing. I think they know what we are doing so it’s going be a nice battle out there tomorrow.”