One large leap forward and two steps back.
This isn’t referring to Tom Jones sparkling footwork during his famous track, but describing the Scottish rugby team in recent years.
Every time it looks like they are catching up with Northern Hemisphere powerhouses England, Wales and Ireland, they suffer defeats to the likes of France and Fiji.
And while confidence appeared to be rising in the Scotland camp after last year’s third-place finish in the Six Nations, they ended up finishing fifth this season.
But for all the disappointment, two things will instil more belief and motivation ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Firstly, the Scots gathered momentum from their storming second-half display against England at Twickenham back in March.
Down 31-7 at half-time, Gregor Townsend’s side roared back to lead 38-37, only to concede a late try and England to force a draw.
Still, a commendable finish to the campaign nevertheless.
Secondly, they proved that they can be competitive on the World Cup stage, reaching the quarter-finals of the 2015 edition, only to be robbed of a late victory against the Wallabies.
Imagine referee Craig Joubert didn’t award that late kick and the Scots reached a first semi-final since 1991?
A lot can happen in four years though and with the same players still lighting up the grand stage, a place in the knock-outs is something the Scots will be hoping to emulate this autumn.
An all-important clash with Ireland is likely to decide whether they qualify first or second from Pool A.
In February, they dominated possession and territory against Ireland at Murrayfield. But a litany of errors in the second-half saw them crash to a 22-13 defeat.
Scotland have beaten Japan in all five of their previous meetings. Townsend’s troops, however, should be wary of the home side’s threat, backed by a strong home crowd.
Samoa and Russia make up the rest of the pool, with Scotland having only lost once in 10 matches against Samoa. The match with Russia will be the first-ever meeting of the two sides.
Should Scotland finish second in the pool, they are likely to face holders New Zealand for a spot in the semis.
The Scots pride themselves on being a very fit team and should put it up to most sides.
Townsend has put significant emphasis on speeding up the play and increasing ball-in-time play where possible. That was evident in the Six Nations win over Italy and in the second period against England.
Progress is being made and if Scotland can reach the last eight, it would confirm their place among the elite sides in the world after a difficult year.
As expected, there is a raft of marquee names selected in Townsend’s squad, such as Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray, with 14 other players boasting previous World Cup experience.
Rory Hutchinson, Grant Stewart and Blade Thomson all made the 42-man training squad, while veteran flanker John Barclay is fit following a year out with an Achilles tendon injury.
Scotland play four warm-up matches, home and away against both France and Georgia in August, before flying to Japan.
After a disappointing Six Nations campaign, belief should still be high for Scotland fans given their favourable pool and chance of reaching another quarter-final.
A solid game plan, tactical consistency, discipline in defence and advancing to the knock-out stages should make for a positive World Cup.
And if Hogg can show some of Jones’ sparkling footwork in Japan, then we are in for a treat.
Nicknames: The Scots
Union: Scottish Rugby Union
Head coach: Gregor Townsend
Captain: Greig Laidlaw
Most caps: Ross Ford (110)
Top scorer: Chris Paterson (809)
Top try scorer: Ian Smith & Tony Stanger (24)
Home stadium: Murrayfield
Key player: Stuart Hogg. The 27-year-old is a lethal runner and his vast talents make him one of the stand-out players to watch in the World Cup. Often acting as a second playmaker, the Exeter man draws defenders to release his teammates and has pace to burn when in possession.
Best finish: Semi-final (1991)
Fixtures: Ireland (September 22), Samoa (September 30), Russia (October 9), Japan (October 13)
DID YOU KNOW?
Scotland lost 9-6 to England in the 1991 Rugby World Cup semi-finals after Gavin Hastings missed a penalty in front of and a short distance from the posts.
Danny Cipriani has been left out of England’s 38-man squad for their pre-World Cup camp in Treviso.
Cipriani was included among 35 players originally selected for Eddie Jones’ training group, but the Gloucester fly-half will not be travelling to Italy on Monday afternoon.
For last week’s gathering in Bristol, Cipriani was one of three players separated from the main squad in order to undertake “specialised strength and conditioning work”.
Copy provided by Press Association Sport
After shocking South Africa in a thriller four years ago, it looked like Japan may kick on to become a serious threat when the World Cup arrived to their home patch in 2019.
However, three months out from the competition, they have struggled to rediscover their glittering 2015 form, with just one win and one draw against Tier 1 nation opposition in 33 matches.
In fact, eight of their 15 wins in the last four years have come against minnow opposition like Korea (4) and Hong Kong (4). Their only victory against a top team was against Italy in June 2018, backed up by a solid 23-23 draw against France the previous year.
International sport may be a results business but, whether form has been patchy or not, it all comes down to the World Cup. This is where the host nation will be judged the most.
On the club front, the Tokyo Sunwolves’ recent culling from the Super Rugby Championship has thrown Japanese rugby into turmoil.
It was complicated decision by SANZAAR – the body that runs the Southern Hemisphere competition – to cut the Sunwolves from the championship after the 2020 season due to the Japanese Rugby Football Union’s refusal to pay the annual ¥1 billion (€8 million) fee necessary to remain in the competition.
In part, the JRFU made it clear that it felt the Top League – Japan’s premier domestic competition – was a better way to strengthen the national team going forward.
One only needs to look at the league tables from the past four seasons to understand this, with the Sunwolves winning just eight out of their 62 matches since 2016 – a disastrous 7.75 per cent success rate.
The fact that they regularly took on the best club sides in the world – win, lose or draw – ensured the players are no longer in awe of the likes of South Africa and New Zealand, a mindset also helped by the win over the Springboks four years ago.
It may be a tough task to match the upset of 2015, but head coach Jamie Joseph, who played in the 1995 World Cup for New Zealand and the 1999 tournament for Japan, remains satisfied with his team’s progress, having played against all top-ranked nations over the past four years.
Despite shipping heavy and narrow defeats, game time and experience have still acted as a positive learning curve.
The 49-year-old has instilled a strong work ethic in his players, and although your not likely to find yourself being too physically intimidated by Japan squad, they are full of smaller, agile players with buckets of skill.
The Brave Blossoms also employ superb technique in passing, kicking and trying to put the best man in a formidable attacking position. And while their scrum may be light on muscle, they are still capable of holding their own against bigger opposition.
Whether this helps against the likes of Ireland and Scotland in Pool A remains to be seen, but Joseph must try to develop a style that can beat Samoa and Scotland in their other group fixtures. Two wins from four will certainly be a solid showing on home turf.
Japan play four games before they open their World Cup campaign on September 20 against Russia in Tokyo, with three of those coming in the Pacific Nations Cup.
Joseph’s side take on Fiji in Kamaishi on July 27, Tonga a week later in Osaka, and the United States in Fiji on August 10, before their final warm-up game against South Africa on September 6.
Of the 42-man squad named in recent weeks, only 12 players have previous Rugby World Cup experience, with New Zealand-born Michael Leitch certain to captain the side if he returns from a groin injury.
Veteran lock Luke Thompson will play in his fourth World Cup at the age of 38 if he makes the final squad, while 23-year-old winger Ataata Moeakiola, who has been plying his trade with Super Rugby for the Chiefs, will be one to watch.
It may be a different Japan side from the one that lit up England four years ago, but backed by home fans and the weight of the nation, it will be exciting to see if the Cherry Blossoms can bloom this Autumn.
Nickname(s): Cherry Blossoms/Brave Blossoms
Head coach: Jamie Joseph
Captain: Michael Leitch
Most caps: Hitoshi Ono (98)
Top scorer: Ayumu Goromaru (708)
Top try scorer: Daisuke Ohata (69)
Home stadium: Chichibunomiya Stadium, Tokyo
Key player: Michael Leitch. The 30-year-old backrower was instrumental in guiding Japan to the greatest shock in world rugby history in 2015. Although he is recovering from a long-term groin injury, he’ll have the hopes of the nation resting on his shoulders. No doubt, the fearless New Zealand-born star will up to the task.
Best result: Pool stage (1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015)
Fixtures: Russia (September 20), Ireland (September 28), Samoa (October 5), Scotland (October 13)
DID YOU KNOW?
Japan were the first country to concede more than 100 points in a game at Rugby World Cup when they lost 145-17 against New Zealand during the 1995 tournament in South Africa.