|Rugby World Cup Pool A: Scotland v Russia|
|Venue: Shizuoka Stadium Date: Wednesday, 9 October Kick-off: 08:15 BST|
When you’ve become the first country at this World Cup to keep an opponent to zero points, as Scotland did against an admittedly mediocre Samoa at the Misaki Stadium in Kobe on Monday, there is no greater certainty than the first man in the door to chat to the media the day after is the defence coach, in this case Matt Taylor.
The Australia-born coach sat in the same chair in the same hotel a week ago and struggled in a hangdog way to come up with answers as to why Scotland were so poor against Ireland. His demeanour after Samoa was a whole lot sunnier.
Scotland hadn’t just become the first nation to nil a rival in the 18 games already played at this tournament – a 34-0 victory against the Pacific Islanders – they’d become the first nation to nil a rival in 34 World Cup games stretching back to the last championship in England when South Africa did it to America.
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“I’ll be saying to the boys – that’s a benchmark now. We can’t be going backwards to how we were against Ireland. Every game we play in is a knockout game from here on in, so physicality is number one.
“If we do well in the Russia match then what a great World Cup moment it will be against Japan to see who gets out of the pool. We’ll throw everything at it. They’re probably everyone’s favourite (second) team at the moment. We know that, but we’re a proud Rugby nation. They’ll have to be worried about us a little bit.”
Taylor took all sorts of stick after the loss to Ireland, not just for the way his team defended but for the way he talked in the build-up, his call to arms against Johnny Sexton going down particularly badly with the Irish. Monday’s victory, then, was a welcome shift in the narrative. “We’re back on the dance-floor,” said Taylor. “We’re back in the competition.”
They are, but Taylor, more than most, knows how soft a recovery this will be for Scotland unless they build on it against Russia in Shizuoka on October 9 and against Japan in Yokohama four days later. Backing up good performances has not exactly been a strength of the nation. It’s been 20 years since they last won three games in a row in either a World Cup or a Six Nations championship.
Three wins in a row is exactly what’s required now – along with a bonus point against Russia and most probably a victory over Japan that denies them a losing bonus. Having to beat Japan will be a big job in itself, but having to beat them by more than seven points or, alternatively, having to score four tries against them in victory, is a fairly mountainous challenge.
Scotland have moved on from the defeat to Ireland but its significance still lingers. Even a losing bonus point against Joe Schmidt’s team would have been welcome. Without it, they’re left chasing more than mere victories against Russia and Japan.
“You don’t really want to be looking towards Japan and not do a good job on Russia,” said Taylor. “You look at Fiji losing to Uruguay – we’re not going to take anyone lightly. Russia are a big physical team and they’ve been in the contest for 65 minutes in both of their games. You take them lightly at your peril.
“Sure, in their warm-up matches they got beaten by Connacht (42-14 in Moscow) and by Jersey (Reds, 35-22, also in Moscow). I’m sure their coaches will have something up their sleeves. They’re big physical guys and we have to match their physicality. We’ve seen the teams that have won the games so far have won the battles. We have to make sure we respond like we did against Samoa. Every game now is like a quarter-final. We have to turn up with the right mindset.
“From the first lineout against Samoa we double-hit them and knocked them back. I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t show the same aggression and mindset because we know if we don’t show up, or put in a performance like we need to, we’re out. It is basically knock-out every game for us now.”
Management of the squad is critical. There’s a long lead-in to the Russia game but then just a four-day turnaround before Japan, their biggest Test match in four years. By contrast, Japan will have had eight days to prepare for that final game in the pool.
Townsend will have to change much of his team for Russia. Keeping players fresh for the big one in Yokohama is an absolute must. Pete Horne, Blair Kinghorn, Henry Pyrgos (in for the stricken Ali Price), George Turner and Ben Toolis are the players who haven’t yet featured. All of them will be promoted for the Russia game. Townsend will want to front-liners on the bench in case things go a little awry during the game, but, ideally, he wouldn’t want to play any of them in that match.
There’s one hurdle to get over first, but Scotland’s World Cup is now all about that trip back to Yokohama for the biggest game of their lives against a buoyant and brilliant host nation.