MANILA – Japan open their Asian 5 Nations campaign on Saturday against the Philippines with a starting XV that shows nine changes and one positional switch from the team that played last weekend’s warm-up game against Asia Pacific Dragons.
The Brave Blossoms may have lost 35-29 to the Polynesian and Asian all stars but it gave head coach Eddie Jones the chance to work out which players to pick for the clash against the Volcanoes at the Eagles Nest in Laguna — a game that officially marks the start of the road to Rugby World Cup 2015 for the Brave Blossoms.
“We have picked our strongest team this week,” Jones told Kyodo News before the team flew out of Japan.
But with a number of senior players rested until Round 3 and some junior players struggling to keep up with the intensity of training for test-match rugby, there are five new faces in the 23-man squad.
Hayden Hopgood, Kotaro Matsushima and Daishi Murata will all win their first caps, as will Kyosuke Horie and Yasuki Hayashi, if they come off the bench.
“There was at times a lack of communication in both attack and defense against the Dragons that we need to correct,” said Murata, who was one of the few Japan players to shine last week. “I want to fulfill the responsibility I have been given and play well.”
The A5N, which this year doubles as the Asian qualifying tournament for RWC 2015, began last week with big wins for Hong Kong and South Korea over the Philippines and Sri Lanka, respectively. And Jones has spent the week reminding the players that they should only take things one game at a time.
“We have been training very hard and making progress, but it has been slow,” he said.
Up front, there is an entire new front five with Masataka Mikami and Kensuke Hatekeyama either side of Hiroki Yuhara in the front row, and Justin Ives and Shoji Ito packing down behind them at lock.
Hopgood joins Hendrik Tui and captain Michael Leitch in the back row.
In the backs, Atsushi Hiwasa partners Yu Tamura, who takes over from Toshiaki Hirose at flyhalf, Ryoto Nakamura and Murata keep their spots in the centers, while Matsushima and Yoshikazu Fujita are on the wings.
The latter shifts from fullback to allow the return of Ayumu Goromaru, who will take over the kicking role from Nakamura.
Saturday’s game is likely to be the last time the teams will meet at test-match level for the foreseeable future.
Next year’s tournament will be based on the International Rugby Board’s performance rankings to avoid some of the mismatches that have occurred, and the elite division will be cut to three teams with Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea playing on a home-and-away basis.
The Volcanoes lost 108-0 to Hong Kong last week and were hammered 121-0 last year in Fukuoka, so the chances of another cricket score are pretty high — apt given the temperatures here are more suited to wielding the willow than chasing an oval pill around a field.
Jones, however, was taking nothing for granted.
“We need to respect the Philippines,” he said.