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The biggest game in Pool A of the Rugby World Cup is not the first one, the tournament opener between host Japan and Russia next Friday.
Nor the second, between the only Tier One teams, pool favorite Ireland and Scotland.
It’s the last one. The one that closes the pool stage: Japan vs. Scotland.
There were gasps of glee from local officials at the drawing of the pools in Kyoto in May 2017 when Japan and Scotland were reunited.
At the 2015 World Cup in England, Scotland beat Japan 45-10, costing Japan its first quarterfinal appearance.
Japan was handicapped before kickoff. The game came only four days after its historic defeat of South Africa. Against the Scots, who were playing their opening game, Japan trailed only 12-10 after 46 minutes then ran out of steam. The result had a huge effect. Scotland ultimately reached the quarterfinals on bonus points, and the one defeat made Japan the first team in tournament history to win three of four pool games but fail to advance.
Japan has tried to ensure the rematch and potential quarterfinal decider in Yokohama starts in its favor on Oct. 13. Japan will have had eight days since its previous game. Scotland will have had only four.
Here’s a closer look at Pool A:
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Rory Best
Best RWC Performance: Quarterfinals: 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011, 2015
Last 5 RWCs: 2015-QF, ’11-QF, ’07-Group Stage, ’03-QF, 1999-QF Playoffs
Outlook: Ireland will be under some pressure to confirm it is the best in the group. The pool winner avoids a quarterfinal against likely Pool B winner New Zealand, the three-time champion. Instead, the Irish may face South Africa, a two-time champion. But that’s to be worried about after Ireland’s last pool game on Oct. 12 against Samoa, a team the Irish have lost to only once. The Irish are No. 1 for the first time in rankings history, though it seems a year late. Their year was 2018, when they won the Six Nations Grand Slam, beat New Zealand at home for the first time, won a series in Australia, and lost only once all year. Irish optimism for the World Cup was through the roof. A year on, Irish optimism is guarded. They have lost three times this year, twice to England and the other to Wales. Ireland produced its best display in its last World Cup warmup, a 19-10 home win over Wales. It wasn’t pretty but the 10-man game was effective. After facing Scotland on the opening weekend, Ireland’s schedule allows it to reset and prepare to try and pass the quarterfinals for the first time.
Player to watch: CJ Stander. Coaches in South Africa told him he was too small to be a test flanker so he moved to Ireland in 2012 and debuted for the Irish in 2016, qualifying on residency. He’s become a British and Irish Lion, featured in bot
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