Saturday 19 October 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Japan have the drive and momentum to take Scotland'

Japan toast their famous victory over Ireland (Adam Davy/PA)
Japan toast their famous victory over Ireland (Adam Davy/PA)
Dejected: Ireland’s Conor Murray slumps off the pitch following Saturday’s shock defeat to Japan at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, in Fukuroi, Shizuoka. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Much was made in the immediate aftermath of Japan's win over Ireland that it had been the culmination of long-term planning.

As Japan coach Jamie Joseph put it, the hosts had been plotting and strategising for three years, whereas for Ireland it had been a subject addressed only after the demolition of Scotland.

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Whatever about his inference from Ireland's preparation, he never referred to the next challenge facing his own coaching staff: managing the players through their games against Samoa and Scotland.

The emotional peak they scaled against Ireland was Alpine. This was a group who had looked nervous on opening night against Russia, which understandably fed into Irish confidence for their second round meeting. How do you get them — and a country who had just woken up to the possibilities presented by this adventure — through to the next target: the quarter-finals?

According to performance psychologist Gerry Hussey, who has worked across Irish sport at an elite level, there may not have been pictures of Irish players up in the Japan team room for an age.

"We often think in sport it's about preparing for your next opponent but it's about preparing for the way you want to play and dealing with the enemies within your own changing room — like fatigue or complacency or whatever," he says. "It's about delivering the best representation of yourself at that moment. The lovely thing about it is it's something that is controllable.

"Once you leave that point then you're in trouble. So I'd say Japan prepared for this game against Samoa talking more about themselves than the opposition."

Whatever, it worked. For the Scots looking at this in their team hotel this was a head-wrecker. First there was the confirmation that Japan would be able to pick up somewhere close to where they left off against Ireland.

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It may not have had the same savage intensity but it was full-on, and — critically — rugby they had planned to play. They were calm when they needed to be.

They were also lucky, which was the second screw driven into the Scots' heads. With the game in overtime, and Samoa with nothing to play for, bizarrely they opted to scrum a free kick they could have kicked out. Better still, Jaco Peyper blew them for an illegal feed — almost a unique occurrence in the modern game — and Japan waded in. And with that, Scotland's climb steepened.

Instead of taking five points against Russia and following it up with a win of any colour against Japan, now they have to worry about keeping Japan away from a bonus point.

In any case the calculator may not be needed. Yes, it's conceivable Japan could lose out altogether, which would be the second time a team had won three pools games and failed to qualify — they were the first to suffer this, four years ago in England — but it's harder to see the Scots saving themselves with two wins in four days.

The momentum behind Japan now is massive. They have an eight-day turnaround to prepare for this final hurdle, knowing that while they carry the hopes of a nation they can fall back on a game plan that is serving them very nicely.

"When you become consumed by your opponent you've surrendered to your opponent," Hussey says. "So I'd expect Japan to be focusing now on how best they can become the embodiment of Japanese culture and spirit.

"They have an advantage in the conditions and they are very fit, so it's about how they can be the best representation of themselves. And that's a great way to be."

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