It is going to be a rough five days for the Scots. Their World Cup is going to be defined by whether they can beat Russia and Japan in back-to-back matches. There are only three days between the games – a bit of scheduling that gives Japan, who will have had eight days off, every last advantage.
Gregor Townsend has spent his past 10 days plotting how to go about this double-header, and for the match against Russia he has made 14 changes to the team who beat Samoa 34-0 last week. Darcy Graham is the only man who has kept his place, and even he has changed wings. The likelihood is Townsend will make almost as many again for Sunday’s game against Japan.
Scotland do not just need to win, they need to do it handsomely too, and score four tries or more. Otherwise they will have to score four against Japan and beat them by at least eight points. And against Russia they have to do it with a team that includes five players who have not played any rugby in this World Cup, and a couple more who were dropped after the defeat by Ireland.
Their captain, John Barclay, is one of them. “It is frustrating,” he said. “It’s the first time I have been left out of the squad since I have been back involved a couple of years ago. It’s been tough, but the boys played really well against Samoa and I am just excited about playing Russia.”
Barclay says they are “champing at the bit” after spending more time than they would like playing pranks, cards, and indoor cricket in the last few weeks. Lately, he said, they have been on the field preparing for how to handle Russia’s kicking game. On average they kick the ball more than any other side in the tournament although their assistant coach, Alexander Voytov, says they want to show they can run with the ball too.
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Pool A: Ireland, Japan, Russia, Samoa, Scotland
Pool B: Canada, Italy, Namibia, New Zealand, South Africa
Pool C: Argentina, England, France, Tonga, USA
Pool D: Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay, Wales
“In preparing for this match we mainly focussed on attack‚“ he said. “We will try and maintain our defence, but we want to play wider with the ball, keep it in hands, and use our big centres. We will try to show our physicality again.”
One of those big centres, Dmitry Gerasimov, reckons “there is no pressure on us as we know it’s our last game at this tournament”. He added: “We come back home after this game, so we wish to shut the door in a very beautiful and loud way.”
He was talking about finishing off Russia’s World Cup campaign, although of course if their defence holds up they could close the door on the Scots too. “Scotland selected a reserves squad against us so they can get ready for the match with Japan, which is more important for them,” Gerasimov said.
You get the sense they don’t appreciate being taken lightly. Voytov said: “Our chances are not bad given that they changed almost the whole lineup.”