Scotland kick-off their World Cup campaign a week today, starting with a bang against the recently-installed top-ranked team on the planet.

There has been a suggestion of late that Ireland may have peaked too early in the World Cup cycle and have now entered a downward spiral, but back-to-back victories over reigning Grand Slam champions Wales in the last fortnight have re-affirmed that Joe Schmidt’s team will head to Japan as serious contenders.

Stalwarts such as Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton and the soon-to-be retired Rory Best may be moving towards the exit door of their glorious international careers, but giants of the game such as these do not simply fade away without a fight.

Kearney was unshakeable at the back in Dublin last weekend, 37-year-old Best was indulged with a standing ovation when he left the field after 52 hard-fought minutes, and while the form of Sexton continues to be a concern the return of Robbie Henshaw brought solidity and control to the team’s midfield defence which Scotland will have to be at their best to circumnavigate.

The team in green will start next week’s match as firm favourites, but Scotland will believe it is the best possible time to face them, with the potential to catch Schmidt’s men on the hop in an alien environment. All the pressure is on Ireland, who travel to Japan with the weight of an expectant nation on their shoulders.

This is one of three pool matches which will define Scotland’s campaign, but defeat would not be a disaster as long as they can take positives out of the performance – and they don’t pick up any injuries along their spine of irreplaceable players, which includes WP Nel at tight-head, Hamish Watson at openside flanker, Greig Laidlaw at scrum-half, Finn Russell, pictured, and Stuart Hogg at full-back.

Next up is Samoa eight days later. With the Pacific Islanders having a rare opportunity to build towards this tournament as a group with a full training camp, this is by no means a walkover. Scotland struggled to kill the Samoans off when the sides met in Gregor Townsend’s first appearance as national team coach two years ago, before eventually holding on for a 44-38 victory. It was even more nerve jangling at the 2015 World Cup when Scotland just sneaked a 33-36 win.

In Scotland’s favour is the eight-day turnaround between match one and match two, which is two more days than Samoa get – a huge difference in international rugby. All things considered, Townsend’s team should have enough in the tank to get through this one.

Next up is Russia, who stumble into this tournament off the back of an 85-15 drubbing by Italy, a 35-22 loss at home to English Champion-ship side Jersey Reds and a 42-14 loss to Connacht. The one issue here is timing, as it is just four days before the second of those tournament-defining matches in the final outing of the pool stage. With only 31 players in each World Cup squad, Townsend will be looking for his shadow team to put in iron-man performances against Russia, so his main men are fresh for what happens next.

Playing Japan in Japan in a winner-takes-all clash, with a first quarter-final appearance for the host nation up for grabs, is huge. Tension levels will be through the roof at the International Stadium in Yokohoma City, and will be a major test of Scotland’s mental fortitude.

Japan set the 2015 World Cup alight with their sensational victory over South Africa and have targeted this match since the moment the draw was announced in November 2017. They are Pacific Nations champions and have long since established they are a cut above the other Tier Two nations.

Although their record against the Tier One nations is one win (against Italy in June 2018), one draw (against France in November 2017) and 11 defeats (including two against Scotland in June 2016), there is an unshakeable resolve about this team, and a determination to use this tournament to make an important point about where they should fit into the international fixture calendar.

“In my opinion, the only reason we would ever lose a match would be because we couldn’t execute what we aimed to do. I don’t imagine us losing because the opponent is stronger than us,” said their captain, Michael Leitch. “I hope to build the team so we can aim for the title. If we focus on preparation, we will be able to play consistently, and the results will follow.”

The third tournament defining match for Scotland is out of their hands. New Zealand versus South Africa on the day before Townsend’s team play Ireland is likely to decide who provides the quarter-final opposition if Scotland manage to make it that far.

Scotland will be desperate to avoid New Zealand, where as they will believe they would have a fighting chance against the Springboks.