Siya Kolisi has called South Africa’s Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland a "play-off” and believes Sunday’s clash with Scotland is their biggest game of the pool stage.

The flanker was the inspirational leader who drove the Springboks’ success in Japan four years ago and Scotland fans might hope that there’s at least one parallel between that campaign and this year’s in France.

In 2019, South Africa’s bid for glory began with a 23-13 defeat to New Zealand – a setback that seemed a damaging gut-punch at the time but turned out to be a galvanising moment that kick-started a barnstorming run to their third Webb Ellis Cup.

If the Springboks are to retain the title, they will have to do it the hard way.

Pool B, due to being drawn more than two-and-a-half years before the tournament kicks off, features three of the top-five ranked sides in the world.

World No. 1 and Six Nations Grand Slam holders Ireland might seem the obvious choice to take the billing for South Africa’s biggest match of the pool stage, but Kolisi believes a strong start is more important.

“A lot has been said about our pool but at the end of the day you have to beat the best,” Kolisi said.

“It doesn’t matter how you do it…you have to beat the big teams. We have a hard pool and the way to the quarter-finals is going to be hard, but to open [the tournament] like that just prepares you. No matter what happens.

“It’s almost like a play-off game for us, it’s an amazing way to start the World Cup. As it was in 2019.

“When it didn’t go well in 2019, every game was like a play-off for us. Any team would want to start like this so you can test yourself and see where you are and make your plans after.”

Despite the gargantuan task ahead, Scotland have reason to be hopeful after an encouraging year that featured wins over Wales, Italy, England, France and Georgia.  

Former international John Jeffrey went as far as to claim this week that Gregor Townsend’s side is “the best ever” to pull on the thistle.

So are there some nerves jangling in the Springboks camp? Not a bit of it.

“Scotland are a great team and they’ve been playing amazingly, as you can see with their results, how close they pushed France,” Kolisi said.

“We obviously give them respect; we’ve studied them as much as we can. We do a lot of preparation for every single team; we spend more time watching clips of not just the other team but opportunities we see that we can use against a team.

“We’ve seen quite a lot of that. That’s why we go into the game so confident, because we’re prepared with the work that we’ve done.

“But they are good. They’ve got some amazing individuals, who can do brilliant things at a certain time, but also they play well as a group and they know who they are. They are a very attacking team.  

“We focus a lot on us, because we can control what we can do. That’s the most important thing for us. But they are a great side, hence why there’s a whole vibe around them.

“That’s why we prepared the way we did as well. This is the most important game for us, on Sunday.”

The 2023 World Cup is the first to take place since heavyweight South African clubs the Lions, Bulls, Stormers and Kolisi’s Sharks joined Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Italian outfits in the United Rugby Championship.

The flanker is one of many Springboks stars who therefore head to France feeling better prepared than ever to take on familiar Scottish players who may have otherwise not come onto the radar.

“It’s played a huge role. When we didn’t play in the URC you would always see some players for the first time when you play against them internationally, so you don’t have an idea,” he explained.

“When you play New Zealand and Australia and in Super Rugby, you know the other guys’ strengths and weaknesses. So it helps us a lot playing in Europe. “

Kolisi doesn’t need anyone to underline to him the challenge that lies ahead.

The Webb Ellis Cup has only been successfully defended once in its 36-year history, when the All Blacks went back-to-back in 2011 and 2015.

Following in those formidable footsteps at a tournament widely regarded as the most competitive ever staged is a daunting task.

But Kolisi insists that having a target on the back as defending champions is “never a pressure” and explained how he’s able to remain grounded and focused amid the building expectation.

“I will never forget when we won in Japan, it was amazing, it was special. But when we landed in Johannesburg…I’m actually getting goosebumps,” he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like that. The airport was amazing because everybody left their working stations, they just wanted to see us.

“That is the kind of energy that drives us, that reminds us who we’re doing it for and why we’re doing it.”

If any onlookers had allowed the memory of 2019 to fade, it came back into razor-sharp focus when they recorded a historic 35-7 trouncing of New Zealand at Twickenham two weeks ago.

The Springboks’ final warm-up game was a reminder of their ability to overwhelm even the most formidable sides in world rugby.

For many it was enough to propel them into the role of tournament favourites, but Kolisi brushed aside the significance of the result.

“We get zero points for that; it was a warm-up game. Of course, it lifts confidence but we don’t know how much stuff they held back,” Kolisi said.

“This is a completely different tournament, each team will be different, and any team can perform. We saw it in 2019.

“I don’t know if people think we’re the favourites, we don’t think about that. We think about ourselves.

“But we do know that everybody’s coming for what we have, and we will do everything to defend that.”