TOKYO, 7 Oct – Rugby fans throughout Japan have one big question on their minds as the final round of pool games begins: what do the Brave Blossoms have to do to qualify for the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time?
It was bad enough for Japan in RWC 2015 when they made headlines all around the world by beating South Africa, won three of their four pool games, yet failed to qualify for the knockout stages because the Springboks and Scotland finished above them through bonus points.
Japan, who did not record a bonus point at RWC 2015, were the first and, to date, only team to win three games and fail to qualify. Should they fail to qualify again it would be heartbreaking for the team and their enthusiastic supporters.
Japan's three wins at RWC 2019 have included another famous victory, this time against Ireland, to match the Brighton Miracle of four years ago.
As the pool tables show, their fate is in their own hands but Japan will probably have to do something they have never achieved in seven previous attempts stretching back to 1991: beat Scotland. Or even draw with them.
Thanks to Kotaro Matsushima’s thrilling late try against Samoa on Saturday, which earned the extra point, Japan can still go through in defeat - provided they lose narrowly to the Scots, or score four tries, or both. They could even win the pool by losing, more of which below.
The game, in Yokohama on Sunday evening, 13 October, is last of all the pool fixtures. It could be one of the biggest sporting parties of the year: whether in Japan or Scotland remains to be seen.
Before that game, Scotland play Russia on Wednesday, and Ireland finish their Pool A campaign against Samoa on Saturday. Because nobody in Japan is taking anything for granted, all thoughts have turned to the worst-case scenario for the hosts, which is the Irish and Scots both taking bonus-point wins in those games.
If they do, Ireland will already have claimed one of the two qualifying places, and the table going into the Japan-Scotland game will be Ireland on 16 points from four games, Japan on 14 from three, and Scotland on 10 from three.
With four points for a win, and five for a bonus-point win, the Scots would be able to claim second place behind Ireland. If the Scots were to take four points more than Japan in Yokohama the two would finish level on 14 points and Japan would go out by virtue of having lost the head-to-head match between the teams.
So, back to the big question: if Ireland and Scotland both pick up bonus-point wins before the Yokohama showdown, what must Japan do to qualify?
If they win or draw, they will qualify.
If Scotland take four points more than Japan from the game, the hosts will be out.
There are four points for winning, a bonus point for scoring four tries (win or lose), and a losing bonus point if the margin of defeat is seven points or less.
If, in defeat, Japan took both the four-try bonus point and the losing bonus point they would top the pool. They would finish ahead of Ireland (both teams on 16 points) because they beat them, and would have more points than Scotland.
If Japan were to take only one bonus point, either by scoring four tries or by restricting the winning margin to seven points or less, they would qualify only if they denied Scotland a bonus point. Games in which the losers score four tries and the winners do not are rare indeed, so a better chance would be a low-scoring game with a narrow margin of victory for the Scots.
Draws are also extremely rare in Rugby World Cup history, three of them in 355 games going into the New Zealand-Namibia fixture on Sunday, which statistically is less than one per cent.
But that is a scenario the Brave Blossoms and their fans should not give up on, because two of those draws have featured Japan, both against Canada in 2007 and 2011. Two draws in their 31 RWC matches since 1987 – that is more like six per cent.
Whatever happens, it should be a night to remember in Yokohama.