All still to play for in Pool A as Scotland bid to spoil Japan’s party

A win of any kind over Samoa would be highly likely to ensure Ireland’s qualification

If nothing else, at least Pool A is by some distance the most interesting of the four at this World Cup.

Whereas the other three are pretty much done and dusted, Japan, Ireland and Scotland can all still advance to the quarter-finals, with each of the three having their qualification destiny in their own hands.

Scotland play Russia on Wednesday in Shizuoka and realistically need a bonus point win against the Bears if they are to give themselves a chance of progressing by beating Japan in Yokohama in the pool finale on Sunday.

Even in that scenario Scotland will need to beat Japan and deny the hosts a bonus point – in other words a victory by more than seven points. That would leave both teams on 14 points, with Scotland having the better head-to-head record.

Ireland, meanwhile, know that a win of any hue against Samoa in Fukuoka next Saturday would, almost certainly, send them through to the knockout stages and that a win with a bonus point definitely would do so.

There’s a very outside chance that the three could finish level on 15 points, were Scotland to beat Russia and Japan with bonus points, and if Japan picked up a losing bonus point and Ireland beat Samoa without a bonus point.

In that scenario, the final standings would be decided on points difference in all of their pool games. As things stand, Ireland have a points’ differential of +46, while Japan’s is +52 and Scotland’s is +10. That puts a further onus on Scotland to run up the points against Russia.

Japan’s bonus-point win over Samoa was secured courtesy of a fourth touchdown of the tournament by joint leading try scorer Kotaro Matsushima in the 84th minute after Jaco Peyper penalised Samoa for a crooked feed five metres from their own line.

This was the first indirect penalty for this offence which anyone could recall in the entire World Cup, and perhaps the calendar year or even beyond, which was all the more remarkable given scrumhalves have been consistently feeding scrums a-la Rugby League in this tournament.

In any event, it left Japan firmly in charge of Pool A, and was a bad result for Scotland, as it will probably mean they’ll have to beat the Cherry Blossoms by more than seven points.

“It’s revving up to be a real ripper,” said Japan coach Jamie Joseph of next Sunday’s meeting with the Scots. “I can’t wait. I know the players can’t wait because we’ve been subconsciously thinking about it for a couple of years now.”

Good performance

Samoan coach Steve Jackson and the rest of his squad are harbouring an even angrier sense of injustice, if that was possible, given the refereeing of Jaco Peyper and his officials last Saturday.

They will carry this into their clash with Ireland at the 22,563 capacity Fukuoka Stadium which, judging by the sticky state of the pitch for the Italy-Canada and France-USA games, is the worst surface of the 12 being used in this tournament.

The Samoan centre Henry Taefu vowed: “We’ve got nothing to lose and we’re going to go in there to get that win. We saw Japan put in a good performance against Ireland and we’re hoping to do the same.”

Ireland at least are in charge of their own qualification hopes, albeit they would also need a favour from Scotland in Yokohama to top Pool One and thereby, most probably avoid the back-to-back champions New Zealand and instead face South Africa. Finishing runners-up would quite probably pit New Zealand and then England in Ireland’s route to the final.

The All Blacks beat Namibia 71-9, their last of 11 touchdowns – a spellbinding, 80 metre effort finished off adroitly by TJ Perenara – probably being the try of the tournament so far for sheer quality. Another win over Italy next Saturday in Toyota City will ensure the holders top Pool B ahead of the Springboks.

A typically erratic France joined England in the knockout stages by virtue of an edgy, 23-21 win over Tonga in Kumamoto yesterday, and thereby eliminated Argentina while reducing some of the importance of the Anglo-French showdown in Yokohama next Saturday.

On all available evidence, England will be warm favourites to win that game although their reward would almost certainly be the tougher half of the draw with, potentially, Australia, New Zealand and then South Africa in their path.

Ireland could conceivably be able to pick from a fully fit squad of 31 players against Samoa pending a medical update this afternoon in Fukuoka.

Robbie Henshaw has declared himself fit to play after recovering from the hamstring injury he incurred shortly after arrival, while despite popping a rib cartilage, Jordi Murphy, is expected to remain with the squad. Rob Kearney (groin) and Joey Carbery (ankle), who was a late withdrawal from the match day squad against Russia, are also due to train this week. If so, one imagines Carbery is sure to be involved.

“I’m finally back on my feet now,” said Henshaw. “I’m looking forward to the next few weeks. I was training at the captain’s run [last Wednesday] and have been on my feet for two weeks. I have been working in the gym and on the pitch – doing speed work and a bit of rehab as well.

“I have to say it has been tough sitting in the stands watching the games. I’m chomping at the bit really to get out and help the lads. It’s exciting for me.”

Joe Schmidt has intimated that his plan is to give Johnny Sexton the first 50 or 60 minutes against Samoa so as to have Ireland’s talismanic outhalf fully primed for a potential quarter-final.