|Rugby World Cup Pool A: Scotland v Russia|
|Venue: Shizuoka Stadium, Fukuroi City Date: Wednesday, 9 October Kick-off: 08:15 BST|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
When Fraser Brown says that every Scottish player needs to treat the upcoming World Cup meetings with Russia and Japan as “the biggest games of your life”, he’s not likely to get any disagreement from his team room.
Brown is 30 years old and, given rugby’s increasing ferocity, he may not see another World Cup. Duncan Taylor and Ryan Wilson are also 30. Pete Horne hits that mark on Saturday. Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour are 31. Gordon Reid is 32. John Barclay, WP Nel and Greig Laidlaw are 33. The odds are very firmly against all of these players appearing in France in four years time.
“We’re playing for a place in the knockout stages of the World Cup,” Brown says. “For a lot of guys, this might be the last tournament. When you take all that in and look at the context, it’s probably two of the biggest games of my career.”
The opening loss to Ireland is gone, but if any positivity came from it then it came in the shape of a squad that drew closer amid all the flak being thrown at them. “Adversity always makes you stronger as a group,” Brown suggests. “It’s no surprise when I say that last week was pretty chastening.
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“Internally, we were obviously really disappointed in ourselves and the standards that we set. And no matter how much you try, you can’t block out the noise that comes from external sources.
“You’ve got to deal with that, individually but as a squad as well. If we set expectations and don’t meet them, you’ve got to expect the scrutiny that’s coming your way, both from the player group, management and the wider public too. It probably helps you focus on the fact you can’t take your foot off the pedal ever because, if you do at this level of rugby, you can look like a very ordinary team.”
The hooker has appeared off the bench in Scotland’s opening two games, his carry leading to one of the penalty tries against Samoa and another carry almost leading to a fifth try late on. After an injury plagued build-up to Japan, he’s had an impact. Brown will play against Russia in Shizuoka on Tuesday – the only question is where will he play.
With only four days between Russia and Japan, Gregor Townsend needs to rest some players for that denouement against the hosts in Yokohama. That means the go-to men will be spared the battle with the Bears in readiness for the Brave Blossoms. Townsend has to rotate.
The five players who haven’t had game time – Blair Kinghorn, Pete Horne, Henry Pyrgos, George Turner and Ben Toolis – will step up, probably from the start. Townsend will be keen to rest Jamie Ritchie and Blade Thomson, which is fine since he’s got Barclay and Wilson.
The intriguing thing is who plays open-side from the start? It could be that Brown gets the job, just as he got it against Argentina in Resistencia last summer and just as he did when Hamish Watson went off early against Ireland in the opener.
Brown is very rarely coy, but he was when asked about where he might play against Russia. “I just get told every week that I have to know the role at two and seven because you never really know what is going to happen,” he reveals. “The way rugby is now, you just have to prepare for every eventuality.”
How do you prepare for a four-day turnaround for Japan? Brown was invited to have a rant about that but declined the offer. Is it fair that Scotland have four days and Japan have eight days? “It’s fair, because it’s part of the competition,” he says.
“We can’t say it’s not fair just because it’s us and four years ago [Japan had a four-day turnaround before they played Scotland] it doesn’t bother you. It’s the way the tournament is. There’s five-day turnarounds back home between league games and European games. You just have to deal with it.
“Rugby is really physically demanding on people’s bodies, but we’re all professionals and we’ve got a huge team of guys working behind the scenes to make sure everything’s right with recovery, nutrition, training. They’ve been planning this not just for the last four weeks, they’ve been planning for a year and a half. They have all those things in place.”
Those quick turnarounds are not going to change. A World Cup can’t go on forever. Teams will have to put up with four-day preparations and the load needs to be spread evenly among nations. Brown says that increasing the size of squads might help. Only 31 players can be selected. Another couple of players would be useful.
“Thirty-one is what we’ve got to work with at the minute, but when you look at the progression of rugby over the last couple of years, the physical demands, it asks a lot,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, World Cups are meant to be challenging. It’s not meant to be easy.
“You only have to look at other aspects of the game, predominantly the ruck, to see the risk that players are at now. So 31 is probably too few, but it’s the parameters that we’ve got to work with here.”
Brown regularly talks about the need for consistency in Scotland performances and that search goes on. Against Samoa, they played with thunder and control on a difficult night. A repeat of that performance against Russia next week is required.
As it stands, the bookmakers make Scotland the favourites to beat Japan but make Japan favourites to progress to the quarter-finals at Scotland’s expense. That means the odds layers don’t believe that Brown’s team can deny Japan a losing bonus point on the day, which they will probably need to do.
“I don’t have a clue about bookies, it’s something that’s always escaped me,” Brown says. “We’ve got a job to do against Russia first. Japan were obviously really impressive against Ireland. For us, it’ll be a high-pressure game but it’ll also be pressure for them as the host nation. I don’t know if there’s any favourites. It’ll be about who deals with that pressure.”
Scotland continue to train in Kobe before making the 300km spin to Hamamatsu, home town of the Suzuki Motor Company and the Yahama Corporation, on Sunday. In a place that is sometimes known as the City of Music, Scotland need to maintain the rhythm they found against Samoa.