FUKUOKA – Japan takes on Uruguay on Saturday on the back of a four-game losing streak. Not the ideal preparation for a side about to embark on a Rugby World Cup campaign.
But head coach Eddie Jones remains upbeat that his side is on course for its best-ever showing once the tournament kicks off in four weeks.
“We don’t need to make massive improvements,” he said Friday at Level-5 Stadium. “We are quietly progressing in the right direction so we can reach our peak by Sept. 19.”
Earlier this week, the Brave Blossoms had a training game against Munakata Sanix Blues, and Saturday’s match has been given a similar status by the Australian as he looks to finalize the 31 players he will take to England.
“It is a test match and we want to win. But we are using it as a selection game and it gives players the opportunity to press for World Cup selection,” Jones said.
“Depending on where they are in terms of selection will determine how much game time they get.”
Hendrik Tui and Karne Hesketh get another run “as they need to play rugby,” while Hayden Hopgood is handed the No. 7 jersey having previously played lock and No. 8.
However, the biggest talking point Friday came with the selection of Keisuke Uchida on the wing rather than his normal position of scrumhalf.
“There are two of three positions we need to confirm,” Jones said. “If Uchida shows us he can play wing, and we know he can play scrumhalf, then that versatility will be invaluable.”
It was a point not lost on the 23-year-old.
“Starting on the wing is a big challenge for not just me but the team,” Uchida said. “I pride myself on being a utility player and want to show what I can do and use that to get a spot in the World Cup squad.”
Jones is also set to hand a first cap to Takayuki Watanabe as Japan’s first-choice loosehead props have still not recovered from injury.
“Because of injuries to (Hisateru) Hirashima and (Keita) Inagaki we’ve brought Watanabe into the squad,” Jones said. “He’ll sit on the bench so it’s a fantastic opportunity for the kid.”
The two countries have met just once before in a test match with Los Teros — who are in what has been dubbed the “Pool of Death” at the World Cup alongside England, Wales Australia and Fiji — winning 24-18 at home in 2005.
“Uruguay have a tough scrum and play like Argentina so we will need to neutralize their forward strength,” said Jones.
That means an improved performance at the breakdown, an area Japan struggled in during the Pacific Nations Cup and against the World XV last week.
“We’ve worked hard at the breakdown this week,” captain Michael Leitch said. “And worked on some new techniques in making the ball available. The World Cup is getting nearer and we all know, especially the forwards, that we have to raise our level.”