Japan v Scotland: Brave Blossoms depleted but still dangerous

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland in Japan
Scotland celebrate against Japan
Scotland defeated Japan at the 2015 World Cup finals
Japan v Scotland
Venue: Toyota City Stadium, Toyota Date: Saturday 18 June Kick-off: 11:20 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Two Scotland, the BBC Sport website and app.

Seasoned visitors to Japan clear their throat and begin the long list of 'must-sees', the shrines and temples and gardens that you cannot miss, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, the Shirasagi-jo castle of Himeji, the wonders of Kinkaku-ji and Fushimi Inari-Taishon of Kyoto.

Everybody says go to Kyoto and stare in awe at the place. Nobody says go to Toyota City and walk about in the rain. Nobody says go to Toyota City full-stop.

Scotland are here though. Ahead of Saturday's opening Test against Japan, they're residing in the heart of this hot, humid, unfailingly friendly and, on Thursday, unceasingly wet industrial city - twinned with Derby - an hour and a half by Bullet train from the delights of Tokyo.

You make your own fun in Toyota City and better than most visitors, probably in modern times, Damien Hoyland did precisely that by playing, and training, his way into Vern Cotter's starting team for Saturday - his second cap for his country but his first start.

Toyota City must have seemed like some kind of trippy combination of the world's greatest cities to Hoyland, a place that he will, all going well, remember fondly until the end of time.

To listen to Hoyland's reaction to getting selected was to be reminded of the power of days like these. He spoke with emotion and pride, he called the whole thing surreal, he said that when he stops to think about what Flower of Scotland is going to be like on Saturday then he almost has to fight the tears.

Damien Hoyland in Japan
Damien Hoyland will make his first Scotland start against Japan

This was a journey into innocence, a player speaking from the heart. And it was lovely.

Scotland are favourites to win on Saturday. It might be a different story if Japan were picking from a full deck of players, but they're not. Far from it.

Too many of the immortals of Brighton, where they beat South Africa in the World Cup, are not around right now. Too many key players missing in too many key positions.

Japan have had the heart ripped out of the team because of injury and Olympics commitments.

Ayumu Goromaru, the full-back who scored 24 points against the Springboks, is injured, as is Michael Leitch, the wonderful captain. Akihito Yamada, a prolific try-scoring wing in Super Rugby this season, is away with the national sevens team.

Male Sa'u, the centre, is also absent. Luke Thompson, the clever second-row, is not around and neither are Michael Broadhurst, the retired openside, and Fumiaki Tanaka, the brilliant, but injured, scrum-half.

Those seven all started against the South Africans. Two more, Atsushi Hiwasa, the scrum-half, and Shinya Makabe, the lock, came off the bench - and both of them are absent as well.

Ayumu Goromaru
Ayumu Goromaru is one of Japan's first-choice players who will miss facing Scotland

That's a total of 371 caps that Japan have to do without from what was the greatest day in their rugby history and one of the most remarkable days in the history of the game.

On top of that, they have lost their coaching brains-trust led by the irrepressible Eddie Jones. The Kiwi, Mark Hammett, is on stand-in head coach duty with Japan right now before his countryman, Jamie Joseph, takes the reins after the summer.

You could say that Japan are in transition right now. Scotland aren't exactly averse in getting big results away from home. It would be a surprise if they don't overcome their depleted hosts on Saturday.

Japan's wings, Mifi Poseti Paea and Yasutaka Sasakura, have just one cap apiece, won last week against Canada. Their scrum-half, Kaito Shigeno, also has just a single cap. Their outside centre, Tim Bennetts, has three caps, their second-row, Naohiro Kotaki, has five, and their openside, Shoukei Kin, has only four.

On their bench, they have four more players who have six caps or less. This is all a far cry from the glories of the World Cup, where Japan won three of their four games, the only game they lost coming against Scotland - four, brutally short, days after they beat the Springboks. In the history of the World Cup, Japan, unquestionably, are the unluckiest team not to have made the quarter-finals.

Harumichi Tatekawa scores a try against Scotland at the World Cup
Harumichi Tatekawa, who scored against Scotland last year, is one of Japan's few survivors

Attempting to hold things together on Saturday are the dangerous centre, Harumichi Tatekawa - Cotter singled him out for praise - backed-up by a fearsome, and experienced, front-row and a second-row featuring the remarkable Hitosho Ono, who'll win his 97th cap on Saturday at the ripe old age of 38.

In the back-row, Japan have Amanaki Mafi, a number eight who caused Scotland all sorts of problems in their World Cup meeting in Gloucester. Mafi put in a tour-de-force that day, scoring a try, running into space and making it look like Japan were about to do to Scotland what they'd previously done to South Africa.

The wheels only came off Japan's challenge when Mafi went off injured early in the second half. Cotter name-checked the number eight as well. The memory of him ripping through the heart of the Scottish defence probably causes him to wince even now.

The Gods have ensured that Japan are not the force of the autumn, but this is their first major Test match on home soil since then, so thunder is guaranteed even in the absence of so many go-to men.

That's the cautionary message from Cotter, a coach who would sooner run naked through the streets of Toyota than under-estimate the team he is plotting against.

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