Following Scotland’s opening loss to Ireland, the world was quick to criticise the Scottish side for their subdued performance against their big brothers.
It was a poor showing from Gregor Townsend’s men – there’s no question about it. To go down almost without firing a shot against a side that the coaching staff would have had endless intelligence on, whilst fielding the most experienced Scottish team in World Cup history, was a blunder and half.
Yet, there’s still plenty of time for Scotland to right their wrongs in this year’s tournament.
World Cup campaigns aren’t remembered for how they start, they’re remembered for how they finish.
Hark back to 2011 and France were entirely underwhelming in the pool stages of the competition.
Were it not for the fact that Tonga had suffered their own hiccup, losing to Canada 25-20, then France would not have even made it out of the group stages of the tournament.
France did make it out, however, and went on to face the home nation in the final. They lost that match, but many felt they were dealt the short straw in a number of refereeing decisions throughout the game.
In fact, that’s one of the lasting memories of the 2011 World Cup: France were probably incredibly unlucky not to win it.
Which just goes to show that what happens in the pool stages of the tournament barely registers as a blip on most people’s radar when looking back.
The exception, of course, is when your tournament both begins and ends poorly; when you’re expected to make the knockout stages but get bundled out early.
England’s 2015 campaign was an absolute disaster for that very reason.
But 2019 doesn’t need to be that way for Scotland, there’s still plenty of time to stop the rot.
Yes, many would have expected the Scots to put up more of a fight against Ireland, but few would have actually expected the boys in blue to come out on top.
Scotland were always going to be fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the finals, and the primary discussion was always going to centre around whether or not Japan could pull a surprise out of the hat.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 30, 2019
Japan have already done that, of course, by putting on a sublime display to down Ireland 19-12 in Shizuoka, recording their first-ever victory over the men from the Emerald Isle.
Regardless of that result, it’s looking increasingly likely that the final game of Pool A, between Japan and Scotland, will decide who earns a spot taking on either South Africa or New Zealand in the quarterfinals.
Again, though, that was always likely to be the case – but that doesn’t mean it was going to be an easy road for Scotland.
Much of the discourse in the build up to this World Cup has focussed on the improving tier two teams: the Pacific Island sides, Japan, the USA and Georgia have all made significant gains in recent times thanks to the increased number of full-time professionals in their squads.
Russia may not have been expected to fire a shot in 2019, but neither Japan nor Samoa were ever going to roll over without a fight.
Scotland have already dealt to Samoa, earning a late try-scoring bonus point in their 34-nil win. It may not have been the best performance from the Scots, but it was still a comprehensive victory.
Japan are a good side who have had the wood over Samoa in the last few years, but their biggest win over the Islanders to date ended 26-5 in 2015 – which is still a way off Scotland’s performance from earlier this week.
Japan have turned out good performances in the past (see their 2015 win over South Africa if you need any inspiration), but do they have the consistency of the higher ranked teams just yet? A win over Samoa, who have won 11 of the 15 matches between the two nations, is not a given.
Even if Japan thrash Samoa, they’ll still need to clock up at least one competition point against Scotland to take out second in the pool, which is no sure thing; it’s a feat they’ve managed just once before.
'I think it’s important we do that. We talk about being a really tight-knit group and that’s part of that.'https://t.co/F6nm7KHO06
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 1, 2019
Should Scotland find themselves on top of the Brave Blossoms come the end of the pool stages then they’ll be tasked with dispatching New Zealand in the quarterfinals. Only a few passionate Scots would fancy Scotland’s chances in that game, which likely means that the Dark Blues are heading for their seventh quarterfinal exit in nine tournaments.
Whilst a loss to the All Blacks in the knockout stages won’t be especially appreciated by Scottish fans, it’s a fate they would have anticipated heading into the World Cup.
If Scotland take out Japan in the pool stages, then 2019 will be looked back on as the tournament where they eliminated the hosts – a nation that had already bested Ireland – and fell in the quarterfinals to the best side on the world.
That’s not a terrible outcome for Scotland – and their fate is still completely in their own hands.
Gregor Townsend was optimistic after his side crushed Samoa 34-0:
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