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Scotland at crossroads on quest for Rugby World Cup quarter-finals

Scotland at crossroads on quest for Rugby World Cup quarter-finals

Winger Darcy Graham is the only player in the Scotland XV who started in the win over Samoa

Winger Darcy Graham is the only player in the Scotland XV who started in the win over Samoa
Rugby World Cup Pool A: Scotland v Russia
Venue: Shizuoka Stadium, Fukuroi City Date: Wednesday, 9 October Kick-off: 08:15 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app

At the heart of Ogasayama Nature Park in Shizuoka Prefecture lies the Ecopa Stadium, a place put on the sporting map when Ronaldinho lobbed David Seaman from halfway down the road to Kakegawa City to put England out of the 2002 football World Cup.

The venue had to wait 17 years for another moment of magnitude – and when it came, the earth fairly shook.

What Ronaldinho did in sinking England, Kenki Fukuoka did in shocking Ireland with the try that led to one of the great sensations of this, or any other, Rugby World Cup.

Scotland will be hoping that there isn’t a third piece of drama associated with the Ecopa come Wednesday, when they play Russia in their penultimate group game.

Everybody knows how this must shake down for the Scots, but here is the landscape one more time. They have to beat the Russians, available at 50-1 if you’re brave, with a four-try bonus point to boot.

They then have to go on to Yokohama for the final game against Japan and take four more points from the game than the hosts.

Scotland have never won three Tests in a row in a World Cup, but that’s what they must do now. They’ve never beaten a team above them in the rankings at a World Cup, but that’s another hurdle they must clear if they are to make it to the last eight.

Russia will not go quietly

Yokohama on Sunday can wait, for there is business to be done in Shizuoka first. Scotland will surely get the job done against Russia, but the Bears are no pushovers.

Scottish player after Scottish player and Scottish coach after Scottish coach has spoken about them this week and it’s abundantly obvious that they respect Russia’s challenge. They don’t fear it, but they know that Russia bring a physical intensity that will take some quelling.

It took Japan and Ireland more than an hour to put them away for good. The team’s attrition is exemplified by their openside flanker, Tagir Gadzhiev, from the tourist no-go region of Dagestan. Gadzhiev is a ferocious player and once his World Cup is done, he will surely get a contact playing in more illustrious surroundings than the Russian league.

This is Russia’s final game of the tournament and anybody who thinks they will go quietly hasn’t seen them play.

Coached by Wales’ Lyn Jones, they have a clever kicking fly-half, a solid scrum that was good enough to win two scrum penalties against Ireland and a defence that takes a fair bit of breaking down. They struggle to score, so they are built to frustrate. So far, they’ve done it better than anybody thought they might.

Russia’s Tagir Gadzhiev appears destined for bigger things after an impressive World Cup

With Scotland, it’s often all about attitude – and a team of psychologists would be at a loss to figure out what their attitude is going to be from one game to another. It’s easy to say, as they always do, that they’re a proud team but their maddening inconsistency makes you question that sometimes.

The non-performance against Ireland was wretched. Gregor Townsend said that he noticed that something wasn’t quite right with them in the warm-up. The warm-up! What does that suggest if not mental frailty under pressure? That’s one side of Scotland, but of course there is another.

The very next game here in Japan brought an impressive response to what happened in Yokohama. Townsend made changes and the changes worked.

Suddenly, the attitude was spot-on. Suddenly Scotland played with controlled aggression. They say they want to play the fastest rugby in the world, but this was a hybrid of what they want to be and what they should be. They managed to marry a bloody-minded belligerence up front with a creativity out the back. It was a balanced game plan and it was encouraging.

Danny Wilson, the forward coach, said that the Samoa game is the benchmark now. He pointed out that, yes, they had to go through a hellish week post-Ireland to find the steel they needed – but now that they had it, they couldn’t dip below that level again. Ever.

We’ll see.

A defining time for Townsend

We’ve been getting excited about one-off performances for too long. The win against the Wallabies in Sydney, the near-miss against the All Blacks in Edinburgh, the Finn Russell-inspired victory against England, the annihilation of the Pumas in Argentina, the incredible comeback at Twickenham.

All great experiences, all examples of Scotland at their dashing best. But for every one of those days, there are one or two others that show them at their worst.

They’re now back at the crossroads in their story. Do they take another wrong turn and go round in circles all over again – or do they find the right answers and start making genuine progress?

Russia will be put away, eventually, but with only four days before Japan run out against them in the cauldron of Yokohama, you have to look at this as a week that will define Townsend’s time as Scotland coach.

With all due respect to the Six Nations, these upcoming games are the biggest the Scots have played in four years.

Over the past fortnight, we have heard players describe the challenge in a number of different ways but all of the terminology amounted to the same thing. “Do-or-die,” says one. “Sink-or-swim,” says another. “Now or never,” says a third. “All or nothing,” says a fourth.

If they can make the quarter-finals and take out the host nation, a seriously formidable rugby team, in the process then that will be an achievement worth saluting. That task started with Samoa and continues with Russia. Two games left and no safety net. The pressure is on.

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