Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Scotland v Japan, RWC 2019: Match Preview pt I

pic © Scottish Rugby Blog

KO 11.45am (7.45pm local time)
International Stadium, Yokohama City

Sunday 13th October 2019

Live on ITV1

Is this Schrodinger’s RWC fixture? Simultaneously both cancelled and going ahead. The fans at home may not truly know how the paradox works itself out until kick-off on Sunday. On the assumption everything pans out as originally planned, here’s part I of the preview for a crucial match…

There are some demons to be exorcised when Scotland face Japan in Yokohama. A positive outcome at the stadium where the Scots opened this tournament in disappointing fashion might banish some memories of the evisceration by Ireland. In the biggest game they have played for four years there’s the chance to learn the lessons of not closing out that last enormous match against Australia.

Scotland’s record in these decisive final pool round encounters at RWCs is actually pretty decent – although in true Scottish fashion accompanied by plenty of heart in mouth moments along the way!

  • 2003 – beat Fiji 22-20 (finished pool runners-up, progressed to QFs)
  • 2007 – beat Italy 18-16 (finished pool runners-up, progressed to QFs)
  • 2011 – lost to England 12-16 (finished 3rd in pool, missed out on QFs)
  • 2015 – beat Samoa 36-33 (finished pool runners-up, progressed to QFs)

Japan Scouting Report

Record in this RWC cycle

Played – 34
Won – 21
Drawn – 1
Lost – 12

Japan played no less than 13 matches against Tier 1 opposition between World Cups. That’s a massive increase on their average of 3 games versus Tier 1 in previous RWC cycles. It’s also significantly more fixtures against the top teams than any other Tier 2 side across the last 4 years, including:

  • Fiji – 8 games v Tier 1
  • Georgia – 6
  • Samoa – 6
  • USA – 4

While Japan only managed a single win (against Italy) and a draw (against France) during these 13 games they also ran Scotland and Wales close. Extra preparation against the big names of world rugby certainly seemed to pay off a couple of weeks ago when the Brave Blossoms turned over Ireland!

Danger man

Kotaro Matsushima has been putting up stellar numbers for Japan throughout the tournament so far. Encouragingly for those who still feel rugby should be a game for all shapes and sizes he’s one of a few sub-90kg, sub-1.80m back 3 players who have been lighting up this RWC (others include South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe and Warrick Gelant plus Scotland’s own Darcy Graham).

The Japanese winger can be a devastating runner if provided with even a little bit of space. Scotland’s kicking game was strong against Samoa and Russia but this will be a different level of risk if they get it wrong with Matsushima lurking and keen to add to his four tries from the first three pool rounds

Key stats from previous matches in Pool A

Japan have already played Russia, Ireland and Samoa in this tournament. These were some of the takeaways from those fixtures:

  • 19 kicks v Ireland. There was a different approach from Japan in their other match against Tier 1 opposition when they took on the Irish. In the games with Russia and Samoa they averaged 30 kicks and were content to make those teams play. The Ireland fixture saw the RWC hosts spend much more time controlling the ball, setting up 60% more rucks than they did versus Samoa and trying to starve the Irish of attacking opportunities. They may well look to do the same to reduce the impact Scotland’s talented backline can have on this game.
  • 17 tackles missed by Japan’s midfield axis (10/12/13). This is not quite the open door that the heart of the Russian backline offered – but if Scotland are looking for encouragement and a route to crack the Japanese defence then challenging the midfield trio of Yu Tamura, Ryoto Nakamura and Timothy Lafaele and their 70% tackle completion rate will surely be high on the agenda.
  • 2 setpieces lost by Japan. Across their 3 previous matches the Brave Blossoms have won 14 out of 14 on their own scrum and 34 out of 36 on their lineout (they’ve also pinched 5 opposition setpieces – 2 scrums and 3 lineouts). Everything is done simply and with the minimum of fuss. Even if Scotland can bring any pressure to bear at scrum time the Japanese will have the ball in and away through channel one to leave almost no risk of losing possession.
  • 168 tackles made by 4 key players. They’ve only played 25% of the total minutes for Japanese players but hooker Shota Horie, lock James Moore and back rows Lappies Labuschagne and Kazuki Himeno have made nearly 40% of the tackles for their team. It’s been highly effective work too with a combined 95% completion rate. They are the front line that will be doing their utmost to stop Scotland’s forwards from getting on the front foot – which is key to releasing the dark blues’ backline’s potential to really tear things up.
  • 1.83 passes per ruck. Japan like to move the ball and they like to find width where possible. With Gregor Townsend’s men also favouring giving it some air (2.01 passes per ruck – for context Ireland averaged 0.96 in their win over Scotland) this has the potential to be a very loose – and very exciting – encounter.

Previous results

Scotland have played Japan 7 times in full capped internationals with the countries’ first meeting coming in the pool stages of the 1991 World Cup. The head to head looks like this from Scotland’s perspective (RWC matches underlined):


Most recent meeting:

Japan 16 – 21 Scotland

Significant stat
The 4 penalties kicked by Greig Laidlaw were pretty essential to the win! Mr Greig had to be sprung from the bench with half an hour to go to bail out a struggling Scotland side in front of his adoring fans in Tokyo.

As has been the case on a number of occasions the team seemed more relaxed and confident with le petit general on the pitch. The day after his 34th birthday will the Jed number 9 have another big evening in him to guide Scotland to the quarter-finals?


Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referee 1: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant Referee 2: Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

This will be the third time Scotland will have been refereed by Mr O’Keeffe. Back in 2016, in just his second Test match, he took charge of Japan v Scotland at the Toyota Stadium. The Kiwi whistler hammered Japan that day with 16 penalties, 2 yellow cards and a penalty try. What Gregor Townsend would give for something similar on Sunday.

The Scottish Rugby Blog’s favourite TMO, Ben Skeen, is in the van. It’s the same role he occupied for Scotland’s last win or go home RWC match against Australia – and of course that went really well…

Scotland’s previous games with Mr O’Keeffe in charge:

  • 2016 – beat Japan (A)
    Penalties: 27 (For 16 – 11 Against)
    Cards: Japan 2 YCs
  • 2016 – beat Argentina (H)
    Penalties: 20 (For 11 – 9 Against)
    Cards: none

The Teams

Not many surprises in the respective selections with Scotland reverting to broadly the lineup that dismissed Samoa and Japan opting for the players who have featured most frequently for them in this tournament – including 9 who will be starting their fourth match in succession.

Interesting notes: dropping the captain Stuart McInally in favour of the in-form Brown, and no sign of Duncan Taylor who is believed to have picked up a thumb injury in the win over Russia. Sean Maitland is also injured.

Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Chris Harris, Sam Johnson, Darcy Graham, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (capt); Allan Dell, Fraser Brown, Willem Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie, Blade Thomson.
Replacements:  Stuart McInally, Gordon Reid, Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, Ryan Wilson, George Horne, Peter Horne, Blair Kinghorn.

Japan: William Tupou, Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Kenki Fukuoka, Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Jiwon Koo, Luke Thompson, James Moore, Michael Leitch (capt), Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno.
Replacements:  Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Uwe Helu, Hendrik Tui, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Ryohei Yamanaka .

Part II of the preview, including the head to heads, will follow tomorrow.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please stick to rugby or the game itself on this post. Go here if you want to talk about typhoons, postponements or legal challenges.

45 Responses

  1. McInally dropped for Brown, with Laidlaw captain. Seems a reasonable call as McInally hasn’t looked himself at 2 and doesn’t seem to be making himself heard as captain.

    Seymour starting on the wing and Maitland not even on the bench so surely injured? (Harsh on Kinghorn as well as he is playing much better on current form).

    P.Horne on the bench ahead of Hastings/Taylor (not a fan of this decision personally, Hastings is much more of a threat).

    Overall a very strong team – if they get to play…..

  2. I am actually happy Townsend has selected Brown ahead of Mcinally for this one, fantastic choice.

    Clearly we will need to slow Japans ball as much as possible, there is no one better than Fraser Brown.

    Very impressive bench, i would of had Cummings & Kinghorn starting though, but hopefully there impact proves me wrong.

    This game is a must-win for Townsend, it wont define his WC success, he will need to get past the QF to win me over.

  3. On a very minor note, I was sure that O’Keefe handed out a YC to the Argentinian who gave away the last minute penalty in 2016, but looks like my memory was wrong!

    The less about Ben “Check Check” Skeen, the better.

    1. He’s on a run of one good game at present I think so you just never know he may get two in a row.

      1. Big loss. He provides good solidarity defensively, something we’ll need a big shift in against Japan.

      2. Good to see team sheets and let’s hope they get on the pitch.

        Big call in benching McInally which is the right call. Seymour over Kinghorn is a poor call in my view. Hastings unlucky after man of the match but Peter Horne showed his value. Like Wilson over Barclay on the bench, he is in better shape and form. If we get to play I am confident we will get the win we need, but the previous results in the article show that a 7 point margin is a rarity.

  4. A seriously impressive bench there! Hopefully resting our key players and Japan players largely flogged over all their matches will give us the edge fitness wise, not to mention some livewires to come on in the last 30.

    The battle of the backrow will be interesting as Japan’s has been very impressive but I think ours will prove too much of a handful, it has an excellent balance and (including Watson) could be our backrow for years to come.

    Matsushima v Graham will be a great scrap too!

  5. Team pretty much as expected, didn’t think he would drop Mcinally though but on form it’s the correct call. Maitland’s injury (I hope it wasn’t from the Samoan sliding tackle) is a big loss, I personally would have started Kinghorn, Seymour has struggled for form for some time now, but both are good in the air which may be the plan for dealing with Matsushima. Taylor sadly hasn’t showed much of his previous excellence, I would have dropped him anyway regardless of injury.


  6. Have I missed something? you were recording a reaction to the Russian match? Is it awaiting approval or out of date now or what? Where is the podcast?

    Many thanks for all your work chaps.

    1. Referendum, it did appear embedded on the Russia match report but seems to have vanished. However, it is out and available at the usual podcast sources and apps as normal.

      1. Ok thanks. It did download eventually there. Thanks. Think my computer plays up from time to time.

  7. I’m actually really happy with this selection.

    – Brown over McInally definitely the right choice.
    – Laidlaw as captain makes more sense given that he is still first choice (should have been captain from the start)
    – Back-row is spot on.
    – Harris over Taylor = good choice
    – P. Horne is who I would have picked for the bench. He does well in that roll and we want Finn playing for 80 so makes more sense to include him over Hastings and he’ll provide centre cover (Taylor has been v ordinary). P. Horne also plays well with his bro and it opens a spot for Kinghorn for back 3 cover.

    Bench looks great overall:

    Hopefully we utilise 2 game plans. Structured in first 60 like we have shown in our last 2 games and THEN in the last 20 we play the fast game with a fast bench and the personnel that suit the style.

    – Horne x 2, Cummings, Wilson, Kinghorn all suit the fast game.

    – McInally will hopefully have a rocket up his arse from being benched.

    – Reid unlucky not to start and Z.Fagerson lucky to bench but they were both 50/50 calls so I have no problems with it.

    If this game gets cancelled I’ll be livid. Japan is there for the taking.

    1. I think McInally doesn’t suit Captain nor the team him being Captain. He doesn’t need the responsibility nor does he thrive on it. The ref doesn’t get influenced by him like Laidlaw or Barclay would do.

      He needs to worry about himself and nothing more and that is the way it should be. Not a good decision in the first place but he was the undroppable up to the tournament so you can understand it.

      1. Agreed. Mcinally looks far more comfortable without the responsibility of captain. A good team guy… but is far more effective focussing on his own game.

    2. Mostly agree – would have Hastings over Horne though as I just don’t see him giving us the points we might need towards the end.
      Would much rather see Hastings at 10 and Russell to 12.

      Kinghorn is miles ahead of Seymour on current form.

      Unfortunately, Harris looks like the best option at 13 (the 3 better options are back in Scotland….).

      Still, a strong team if they actually get to play!

      1. With Taylor injured and nobody else who can play centre the logic of having horne, who can cover both fly half and centre, is clear.

  8. Slightly unconvinced by the record in final pool games. We lost one and would have given away losing bonus points in the other 3 without gaining a try bonus. That is exactly the formula that would see us traveling home if repeated on Sunday.

    On the upside if the game is cancelled the defense coach will be hailed the messiah for having delivered three games in a row where we haven’t conceded a point!

  9. 17 missed tackles in midfield is an interesting statistic. This might be the game for Sam Johnson to relight the heather and put in the performance we’ve been looking for since the second half in Twickenham. Pretty sure this is the game Toony has been sparing the midfield playbook for.

    When you look back at the statistics from the Russia game our only downside was the number of turnovers. Really want to minimize the amount of turnover ball we give the Japanese. If we can sort that then it should be an epic game.

    1. Yes I think so too. GT will have a few plays that won’t be on any other footage. These days you have to come up something that teams can’t plan ahead for… because of the stats and vid analysis work done. It’s fine margins …
      That said i don’t think JJ and Japan have have the same capacity for that. I be seen a few of there try moves this RWC … that just looked copied from other sides I’ve watched.

  10. In both the Russia and Samoa games I felt we made too many mistakes. Plus we continue to compound errors by making more errors trying to make up for the first one. Hopefully the team have gotten all the errors out their system as Japan look good at punishing errors.

    1. Samoa game ..conditions played a large part in the error count.
      Russia ..that was essentially a back up side who had not much experience playing together but who still looked very dangerous.

  11. I think its a good team selection from GT…hard to argue with any of it. Think Hastings and Toolis can consider themselves unlucky…but may still have an important part to play if we progress.Kinghorn offers a different type of threat off the bench tho..and Japan would need to adjust for him.
    Seymour a fair selection for his defensive ability considering Maitland is out. He isnt as fast as he used to be…but his experience will be vital..and we have Graham for pace.
    Brown over McInally is the right call… McInally.. I like as a player ..but his form has dipped…and imo lucky he didn’t lose his bench spot to Turner who played well against Russia. Brown looks finally fit…and is pretty dynamic and excellent in the breakdown.
    Like someone else stated previously, I think there has been a turnaround in the Scotland camp…probably for a variety of reasons. They are starting to look a real threat again.
    Thats why J Joseph is suddenly getting a bit edgy and defensive about the situation I think.
    If we turn up…or even just get the chance to….its game on!

  12. Happy with this team.

    Surprised at McInally decision but I have some sympathy with the folks saying he seems to perform better without the responsibility and would be difficult (unfair?) to remove the captaincy from him if he started. Pleased with the back row. This may be the cog we’ve been missing! Would love to see Maitland and sure he would have played barring injury.

    The international Japan love in is beginning to get my goat. Don’t let it get into your psyche! Definite HITR!

    I’ll regale you with a chat I had with a pal of mine today. He’s English and an non-rugby supporter but I try not to hold those things against him. I was bemoaning the potential exit scenario and it went like this:

    Him, excitedly: Japan are tearing it up! They’re playing fantastically!

    Me, (in my head): They’re playing well but they’ve won 2 games they should have and beat neither as well as we beat the same opponents. They won 1 game they shouldn’t have. Bloody good win for them and fair play. But that’s not ‘fantastically’, that’s 1 game. How about doing that twice when they’re not underestimated. If they beat us fair and square (When they’re not underestimated) then chapeau to them.

    Me, (out loud): Yeah.

    Realistically, assuming the game goes ahead, we should be fairly comfortable with winning and (probably) doing enough to get through. And if we click, we could conceivably give them a spanking. Now wouldn’t that be satisfying.

  13. Are Scotland trying to tackle World Rugby all on our own and own way !Maybe we need to tackle this with some collusion. It is strange that Ireland will play tomorrow while England, France, Italy and NZ will not.

    At what point will Australia, South Africa, Wales and Ireland raise the issue that they have played 4 pool games , while England , NZ , France and Japan have not!

    I have assumed Sunday is cancelled and Ireland go through tomorrow. However it could get worse with either Scotland or Japan joining the ‘we have played 4 pool games cluster’ facing the cluster of team’s who have only played 3 pool games .

    The tournament is now compromised and It is time to call on a few allies IMO.

    1. I doubt they care other than Italy. The are in the last eight and they’ll see it as a plus potentially in that England could be undercooked and so could others. Japan will be delighted to gt through and Ireland know it;s likely they top the pool.

  14. The tournament is a farce. If Japan were in Scotland’s table position we would not be having these discussions.

    8 Years in the planning, yet now the weather is an issue, this proves there has been no planning done and the fat cats are picking up money for nothing. No effort seen to solve the problems

    The competition isn’t a competition when all teams cannot compete.

    All teams should have stood together to insist that all games were played.

    This game was probably going to be the most exciting to date, but now based on the fact Italy are out because of the weather without any alternatives this tournament is a joke.

    Not only that, the teams that haven’t yet qualified are at a disadvantage as they are thinking they might not get the chance to play again, but the teams that have qualified know they have qualified and are preparing as normal.

    Why this country was chosen to host a world cup in a typhoon season is beyond me if no backups are in place. What have they been doing for the last 8 Years.

    I could not imagine the feeling of a supporter that had made their way out there for this game and spent large sums of money as well as taking valuable time off work.

    1. Agreed Andy but you’re in the wrong post. Get some of this stuff across in the other one before it is deleted. I could transfer it for you if you like?

  15. This discussion is all academic I fear. The game won’t go ahead given the magnitude of the typhoon and lack of contingency. Yet another chapter in the book of Scottish rugby disappointments. Hope I’m wrong.

    1. Yeah …. happens more and more these days… it makes interesting media..
      Hurricanes can increase and dramatically decrease at the drop of a hat…. I’ve lost count of the amount of times in the US I’ve heard of an impending catastrophe.. only to be faced with a sneaky fart in the elevator.

  16. I look forward to a Japanese victory, they are hugely underestimated and will better handle the conditions. Gambare

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