KOBE, 29 Sep – A preview of the Pool A group fixture between Scotland and Samoa, which kicks off at 19:15 on Monday at Kobe Misaki Stadium.
The Big Picture
For Scotland, the moment of truth is upon them already. After a calamitous opening 27-3 defeat by Ireland, there is no further margin for error.
"It’s do or die now," said Darcy Graham as the winger – one of five players brought into the starting XV – sized up the task at hand.
Rugby World Cup history tells us two teams have previously reached the quarter-finals after losing two pool matches – Fiji in 1987 and France, who progressed to the final, in 2011. But realistically Scotland, and their head coach Gregor Townsend, are well aware of the territory in which they now find themselves.
"We know if we don’t win all the next three games we won’t make the quarter-finals,” said the former Scotland and British & Irish Lions fly-half.
Japan's defeat of Pool A favourites Ireland on Saturday has raised the stakes even higher for Scotland. Beating Samoa, Russia and the hosts still might not be sufficient now.
The qualification arithmetic means they will probably need to win all three games with a bonus point – as well as denying Japan a losing bonus point – if the hosts collect five points from their next match with Samoa.
But for now the Scots simply need to focus on overcoming a Samoan side who, despite starting their own campaign with a bonus-point win over Russia, approach Monday’s contest with issues of their own.
Townsend may have willingly dispensed with 190 caps’ worth of experience in dropping John Barclay, Ryan Wilson, Duncan Taylor and Tommy Seymour from his own side, as well as losing key flanker Hamish Watson to a tournament-ending injury.
But Samoa counterpart Vaeluaga Steve Jackson has had to contend with No.8 Afaesetiti Amosa being ruled out of the rest of the campaign after suffering a knee injury in the act of scoring a try against Russia, and two players – hooker Motu Matu'u and centre Rey Lee-Lo – banned for their three remaining pool matches for high tackles in their opening match.
"That's weighed heavily on their shoulders but we’ve managed to pick them up," Jackson said. "This group is highly motivated to get out of the pool so that those two can play again."
In the spotlight
After Samoan players received two yellow cards – and subsequently two three-match bans – for high tackles against Russia, referee Pascal Gauzere can be expected to be extra vigilant given World Rugby’s own warning about some sub-standard decisions in the opening matches.
"They were two clear head shots, and pretty brutal ones at that,” said Scotland scrum-half and former captain Greig Laidlaw when asked about the Samoan offences. "Ultimately you are looking for the ref to look after players."
Samoa, for their part, are clearly still aggrieved at the punishments handed out and unimpressed that the issue has become such a hot topic.
"Thanks for doing that because that just motivates our players a lot more," said Jackson on Sunday.
"The 23 players that are going out there will have the same mindset and the same attitude, same temperament to this group and then we'll see what happens."
Scotland, despite picking a more abrasive back row, are wary of getting drawn into an arm-wrestle with the ultra-combative Pacific Islanders.
"We need to box clever," said Sean Lamont, the 105-cap former Scotland wing now working with the squad as a strength and conditioning coach. "If we just try to match them physically, that's playing into their hands. We need to use our footwork and bring that energy."
Scotland have made five changes, and start with a completely new back-row. Magnus Bradbury and Blade Thomson take over from Barclay and Wilson at blindside flanker and No.8 respectively, while Jamie Ritchie starts at openside in place of Watson.
In the backline Darcy Graham comes onto the right-wing in place of Seymour, while Chris Harris starts at outside-centre in place of Taylor, who drops to the bench.
Samoa have made four changes, three of them enforced. Hooker Matu’u and centre Lee-Lo both are suspended, while number eight Amosa sustained a knee injury that ended his World Cup.
Captain Jack Lam, pictured in action in the RWC 2015 match, returns from injury to start at number eight, Ray Niuia comes in at hooker and Belgium Tuatagaloa starts at right-wing with Alapati Leiua – who scored two tries against Russia – switched to outside-centre. Melani Matavao takes over at scrum-half from Dwayne Polataivao.
Stats & Trivia
Scotland have won all three previous World Cup meetings against Samoa, in 1991 (28-6), 1999 (35-20) and 2015 (36-33).
Greig Laidlaw, the oldest member of the Scotland squad (he turns 34 the day before their final pool game against Japan), scored 26 points, his highest personal haul in a test, against Samoa at RWC 2015.
Tusi Pisi, at 37 the oldest Samoan to play at a World Cup, needs six more points to overtake Silao Leaega (62) as the country’s leading scorer in the tournament’s history.
If Adam Hastings comes on as a replacement for Scotland, he and father Gavin will be the first father-son combination to represent Scotland at the Rugby World Cup.
"If we are in a position to go for the bonus point with 20 minutes to go, then of course we are going to try for it. But we just have to focus on beating Samoa." - Scotland captain Stuart McInally.
"I'm pretty sure they're hurting from getting the spanking from Ireland but we're ready for that and we're obviously having our own motivations in our camp." Samoa captain Jack Lam.