Gregor Townsend has warned Scotland they cannot afford to treat Japan lightly if they wish to get back on the victory trail at Murrayfield this weekend.
Due to the impact of Covid, the Brave Blossoms have played only five matches in the last two years and have lost four of them, with their only win in that time coming against Portugal last weekend.
However, Townsend – who saw Japan at close quarters when they lost 28-10 to the British & Irish Lions at Murrayfield in June – believes they will have benefitted from getting three matches under their belts over the past month.
The Scotland head coach is also mindful of the fact his side suffered a costly defeat in their last meeting with Japan at the 2019 World Cup.
He said: “I expect a similar challenge to the one they presented us two years ago. I coached the team that day and I was part of the Lions coaching staff in the summer and they played very well the more they got into the game, especially in the second half.
“The following week they scored over 30 points against Ireland so we know what a dangerous team they can be, especially when they’ve spent time together.
“I think you’ve got to look past that result (a 60-5 defeat) they had against Ireland a couple of weeks ago because that was their second match after a few months’ gap, not just from international rugby but also from club rugby.
We’re going to see their best performance of the campaign, that’s for sure
“They’ll be better for having spent time together and having had three Test matches over the past month. We’re going to see their best performance of the campaign, that’s for sure. It’s up to us to deliver our best performance on the other side.”
Townsend feels his own team have improved significantly since losing to Japan at the World Cup and is hoping they can vindicate that belief by bouncing back from last weekend’s disappointing 30-15 defeat by world champions South Africa.
He said: “We’ve improved in a number of areas since 2019. We’ve been tougher to beat up until last weekend. Most of our results since 2019 have either been victories or defeats within a score, so that was disappointing last weekend.
“But we know we got ourselves in a position where if we’d executed things better, we could have kicked on into that final quarter. I feel we’re a team that can score a try at any point in the game, like we showed with our try in the first half last weekend.”
Townsend has made seven changes to his starting XV for the Japan game, with Bath’s Josh Bayliss making his maiden start at number eight and Glasgow prop Jamie Bhatti handed a first start since summer 2019.
The head coach explained that he has had to balance giving game time to as many of his squad as possible, with gearing his team towards the Six Nations opener in February.
He said: “We’ve got one eye on the next tournament, which comes round very quickly. We’re playing England at home, which is a very big challenge for us, so it is important that players that are currently in the mix to play in that game get an opportunity to build on the momentum from last year’s Six Nations and throughout the autumn.”
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