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Tanaka awaits first start of 2014 for Brave Blossoms in IRB Pacific Nations Cup

Kyodo

Highlanders and Panasonic Wild Knights scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka will make his first international start of the year Saturday when Japan takes on Canada in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup.

The 29-year-old missed the recent Asian 5 Nations tournament that saw Japan qualify for next year’s Rugby World Cup but walk straight back into the side as head coach Eddie Jones makes five changes to the team that started last week’s 33-14 win over Samoa.

Hooker Shota Horie and outside center Male Sa’u also return from their Super Rugby side, Melbourne Rebels, having missed the warm-up test against Samoa.

Sa’u takes over from Kotaro Matsushima, who was forced to return home after failing to recover from an injury he picked up during an impressive performance against the Pacific islanders in Tokyo last Friday. The Brave Blossoms picked up their seventh straight win.

The other two changes see lock Luke Thompson and flanker Justin Ives promoted off the bench, as Jones looks to match the brute strength of the Canadians.

“Canada’s a big physical team, they’re a bully team, so we’ve got to meet their physical challenge and then play some rugby,” Jones told theprovince.com.

Jones also named six forwards and just two backs on the replacement bench as Japan looks to make it back-to-back wins over the Canucks, following a 16-13 victory in Nagoya last year.

This year’s PNC sees a new format with Japan grouped with Canada and the United States while Samoa, Tonga and Fiji play in a separate group. No decision has been made yet on whether the winners of the two groups will meet in November, as originally suggested by the IRB.