Former Japan coach and current England boss Eddie Jones said that hosts Japan have to beat Scotland at this year's Rugby World Cup to reach the quarterfinals, but that "anything's possible."
"They're going to have to beat Scotland. Scotland's a strong team. But as we showed in 2015, anything's possible," Jones told Kyodo News in a recent interview.
Jones, who headed the Brave Blossoms from 2012 to 2015, led Japan to three historic victories in the 2015 World Cup, including one of the sport's biggest shocks when they beat South Africa 34-32 in their opening pool game.
The 58-year-old Australian said the Brave Blossoms' biggest test in their pool -- which includes Ireland, Russia and Samoa -- will come against Scotland, but said the hosts have a chance to reach the best eight for the first time if they can match the Scots' unstructured approach.
"You've got to play a looser style," Jones said. "They (Scotland) try to break the game up. They want the game to be more unstructured, so it will suit Japan more, but again, they (Scotland) have got a very good team. Good backs, good back row. Their set piece is outstanding."
But Jones added that Japan's solidarity as a team will be a huge asset in taking on Scotland, who beat the Brave Blossoms in their 2015 World Cup pool game but lost to Australia in the quarterfinals.
"Japan's challenge will be preparing to beat Scotland. (But) you've got to look at the advantages Japan has -- apart from Argentina, they're the only international team that have all their players together as a group, and they play Super Rugby together, so they have time. And that's a big advantage."
Despite predicting that Japan will "probably rank third" in Pool A, Jones said the team is better overall than the one he coached before signing on with England. The Brave Blossoms had been on the verge of another shock upset in a test match against England at Twickenham in November, but went on to lose 35-15 after running out of gas.
"Japan is a good tough team, probably a much stronger team than the one I coached. (Japan coach) Jamie (Joseph) and (Sunwolves coach) Tony Brown are doing a great job. They're a lot bigger physically than I've seen a Japan team," Jones said.
"Their defense was impressive, good line speed, worked hard for the 80 minutes. They attacked with a lot of creativity. I thought (Michael) Leitch played exceptionally well. There are some good young players, (Atsushi) Sakate, Koo (Ji Won), (Kazuki) Himeno -- very impressive."
Jones pointed out that the Sunwolves, Japan's Super Rugby franchise since 2016, has played a big role in exposing national team members to a higher level of athleticism.
"You can see they are enjoying the advantage of playing in Super Rugby. They're much more used to playing at a high intensity for longer periods of time," Jones said.
"When we were preparing for the World Cup, we had to play the Asian Championship up against amateur players. We were playing Hong Kong, the Philippines -- whereas now the players are playing Super Rugby. Now, they have a massive advantage, and you can see that in the level of their play."
But Jones qualified that while Japan have improved, Joseph and the Brave Blossoms still have work to do if they intend to crack the top 10 again and challenge the world's best.
"They haven't been in the top 10 since 2016," Jones said. "There's a big difference between being in the top 10 and not being in. To be in the top 10, you have to beat top-10 teams."
While Japan prepare for the challenges on the field, Jones said he is looking forward to the Sept. 20-Nov. 2 tournament to be held in Asia for the first time. Over half of the 1.8 million tickets have already been sold for the 2019 edition featuring 48 games contested in 12 venues across the country.
"It's fascinating. Because Japan's a non-traditional rugby country, the World Cup's going to be even more exciting. We know Japan's one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. It could be the best World Cup ever staged," Jones said.
"Great stadiums, potentially a good fan base. From what I hear the tickets are selling really well, well ahead of every other World Cup. It's going to be a great tournament."
Japan begin their 2019 World Cup campaign with an opening match against Russia on Sep. 20 at Tokyo's Ajinomoto Stadium.