Italy captain Quintin Geldenhuys may have said Friday that the pitch at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground was a “quick fast track,” and that he was looking forward to an “open, running game” when the Azzurri take on Japan on Saturday, but Japan coach Eddie Jones wasn’t buying into it.
“I don’t think so,” Jones said when asked if he thought the visitors would throw the ball around. “They are going to play to their strengths. They’ve got a hooker (Leonardo Ghiraldini) with over 60 caps, (lock Marco) Bortolami has over 100 and (flanker Mauro) Bergamasco is going to play his 100th test. So I doubt they will play away from that.”
So it was no real surprise that Japan spent the opening part of its final training session working on restarts and line-outs under the watchful eye of Steve Borthwick.
The former England captain, who only hung up his playing boots three weeks ago, is the new Japan forwards coach and Jones is hoping his experience of playing against the likes of Bortolami and Bergamasco will give the Japan pack an edge as it looks for their 10th straight win.
It’s a point not lost on Geldenhuys.
“Look at what Borthwick did with Saracens,” the South African-born lock said. “They had one of the best organized line-outs in Europe. He is very professional and hard working and you can already see the improvement. Line-outs will no longer be a problem for Japan.”
Marc dal Maso’s work with the Brave Blossoms pack has already ensured that the scrums have become a key attacking weapon. But Japan is up against a side that has beaten the likes of Ireland and France in recent years based on an experienced and hardened pack.
And as Jones pointed out, the Italians generally play sides far higher than Japan in the world rankings.
“We play in the Asian 5 Nations and they play in the Six Nations,” he said. “So let’s not kid ourselves. We will have to play at our very best to win. But if we get our maul and scrum defense right then I am confident we can win. But it will be tough.”
While Japan has put together a nine-match winning streak, Italy come into the game on the back of eight straight loses.
“We started the Six Nations well but struggled big time in the last two games,” said Geldenhuys. And the end of season to tour to the Pacific has proved no easier.
“We struggled with the heat in Fiji and Samoa. But it is a little cooler here so hopefully we will be up for it,” Geldenhuys said. “It has been tough after all the losses but we want to end the season on a high.”