BRIGHTON, ENGLAND – Japan coach Eddie Jones sprang three surprises Thursday in naming his 23-man squad to take on South Africa on Saturday in the opening game of Pool B at the Rugby World Cup.
Kosei Ono, Kotaro Matsushima and Akihito Yamada were handed the 10, 11 and 14 jerseys, respectively, as the Brave Blossoms look to pull off the greatest upset the sport has ever seen.
“It’s a real David-vs.-Goliath game,” Jones said. “South Africa have the greatest winning record in World Cup history. They are a massive physical team with plenty of experience. Japan have the least winning record in the World Cup and have the smallest team. But it’s a great opportunity and I am looking forward to it.”
Jones carried on with the Biblical theme, saying, “In David and Goliath everyone fought with spears. We have to fight with other things. But the central piece to any game is the set piece and it’s an area of the game we must compete in.”
When asked about his choices on the wing and at flyhalf — with fan favorites Kenki Fukuoka and Yoshikazu Fujita forced to watch the game from the stands and Harumichi Tatekawa on the bench — Jones initially said only that his picks “are the best players,” before expanding on his selections.
“Matsushima has an association with South Africa. His father was Zimbabwean, he played for the Sharks at age grade and he is looking forward to the opportunity to playing them.
“Yamada is up against Bryan Habana, one of the greatest wings of all time. But he enjoys being on the big stage and has got the opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Ono’s better communication and organizational skills won him the job ahead of Tatekawa, a point not lost on Male Sa’u, who starts at outside center.
“I’ll play with everyone, but Eddie has picked what is best for the team and I back him up,” Sa’u said. “But with (Craig) Wing inside me (at 12) it does make things a lot safer in defense and Kosei’s control and communication makes it easier for Wingy and me.”
Ono lines up with Fumiaki Tanaka at halfback with Ayumu Goromaru at fullback, and Jones is hoping the backs will get lots of ball.
“It’s no secret we want to play with ball in hand and we want to run them around,” he said.
Key to getting that ball will be the eight forwards named in the pack.
Props Masataka Mikami and Kensuke Hatakeyama will, Jones said, “need to scrum, get up, then scrum again, get up and then when the South African forwards are running at them they will need to chop them down.”
The pair pack down either side of Shota Horie with the veteran pair of Luke Thompson and Hitoshi Ono in the second row.
Skipper Michael Leitch lines up with Michael Broadhurst and Hendrik Tui in the back row, with Broadhurst hoping to get some revenge for his family.
“(My brother) James’ only test for the All Blacks was against the Springboks and he was given a hard time so I am going to try and give a bit back,” he said.
In a curious aside, Tui will be up against Suntory Sungoliath clubmate Schalk Burger at No. 8, while the two reserve halfbacks — Atsushi Hiwasa and Fourie du Preez — are also both from the Suntory club.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5