The Brave Blossoms might sound like a collective name for a herd of My Little Ponies but they arrive in Scotland with sights set firmly on earning a place in the top 8 of the IRB World Rankings. When Eddie Jones took over as coach he said the way to do this was to develop a style of play that would allow them to win games against the likes of Wales and Scotland. This summer Japan beat Wales – albeit a Wales team decimated by absent Lions.
One down though, just one to go.
The Japanese Government is pouring money into the development of Union and the country will be the first second tier nation to host the World Cup when it comes to their shores in 2019. They even forked out the cash required to have a crack at the All Blacks (jumping the cash-poor Pacific Islands along the way) and although they were well beaten they still caused some problems, especially in the scrum.
In this piece we would usually look at five things Scotland need to do to overcome the opposition.
However as has been widely reported, Scott Johnson has issued a final warning to a number of incumbent players in the squad. Time is running out and Vern Cotter will not have the luxury of being able to experiment with new blood when he takes over coaching responsibilities. The squad for the Six Nations will, injuries aside, largely be the squad targeting World Cup glory. Josh Strauss, Tyrone Holmes or WP Nel may feature by then, but there will not be time for wholesale changes after this autumn.
Although Johnson hasn’t named names we can take a guess as some of the names in his sights with question marks next to them. So which five players are not so much drinking in the last chance saloon as desperately trying to get served before the landlord calls time and they fall off the stool?
1. Nick De Luca
Nick De Luca isn’t so much made of Teflon as some hitherto unknown alien substance which repels everything and anything thrown at it. The problem with De Luca is that he excites at club level and looks every inch a test-class centre. His partnership with Scott is strong, he runs powerfully and offloads well to the men outside him. This makes him hard for selectors to ignore but there are only so many times disciplinary lapses can be forgiven, especially when they lead to defeat. In the past, as with some of the other names on this list, it was a case of ‘if not De Luca then who else?’ Right now we have a few injuries in the centre but in general that is no longer the case, and De Luca will need to keep his head and reproduce his club form and partner exceptionally well with Scott if he wants to stand any chance of making the World Cup.
2. David Denton
David Denton may be young but time to make good on any potential before the World Cup is running out. There is plenty of competition from the likes of Harley and Wilson, not to mention Johnson’s first choice of Brown, Beattie and Strokosch. The imposing hairy figure of Josh Strauss looms particularly large as time ticks down to his qualification for Scotland, representing the ball-carrying cannon David needs to be. Denton needs a big performance or he may find himself so far down the pecking order, only an outbreak of the plague would see him restored to the squad.
3. Al Kellock
Al Kellock. Old reliable. The captain who went to a World Cup and watched from the bench. Kellock is a sure pair of hands in the lineout but there are plenty of young upstarts pushing for a place, not to mention the fact that Hamilton and Gray Snr. remain first choice among most fans. In terms of locks, Swinson and Gray Jnr may also now have overtaken him but the one reason he remains is Scotland do not have a leader as inspirational as Al. Kellock will be a sprightly 34 come autumn 2015 but he may not be first pick for the Warriors by that time, let alone Scotland. If he can command the line out and continue to inspire those around him there may be something to be said for putting faith in the old dog.
4. Ross Ford
As Brodie pointed out it seems rather strange to see Ross Ford’s name mentioned in the same breath as the Lions. That speaks volumes for how far Ford’s stock has fallen in the past five years. His ability to throw seems to have completely deserted him, although he is still an effective battering ram in the loose and brick wall in defence. In the past he was first choice because, well, if not Ross Ford then who else? Now there is Pat McArthur, Dougie Hall and Steve Lawrie. None stand-out but neither are they far behind Ford these days. The emerging Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally, whose choice to shift forward in the pack will also put more pressure on Ford and might push him out of the squad altogether unless he can unleash the Lion inside himself.
5. Euan Murray
Aside from being unavailable on the Sabbath, Murray is now largely a one-trick pony. That trick is being a marginally better scrummager than Geoff Cross. It’s a lousy trick. When Murray switches it on he is a great rugby player but generally his work in the loose is a shadow of what Girth can produce. Scotland are in crisis at tighthead and Jon Welsh might not be the answer. If Murray can’t produce a good all round performance AND cause damage in the scrum Scott Johnson must go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. Scotland will not progress from the group stages of a World Cup without a strong tighthead. The only option left to Scotland would be Scottish born Scott Wilson currently at Newcastle Falcons. But Johnson will have to fast track him into the squad soon. Wilson is already a Junior World Championship winner with England and will be called up to the Saxons sooner rather than later. There are a few names ahead of him in the England set up but being fast tracked into the Scottish front row and the chance to play in the 2015 World Cup might be too hard to resist.