TOYOTA, AICHI PREF. – Japan looks to avenge its only loss at last year’s Rugby World Cup on Saturday when it takes on Scotland at Toyota Stadium.
But it is a much-changed Japan side that takes on the men in blue.
Japan’s 23-man match-day squad contains just 12 players who helped the Brave Blossoms to three wins at RWC 2015, the one blip being a 45-10 loss to Scotland just four days after the historic win over South Africa.
Injury, retirement and unavailability due to Olympic requirements have hit Japan big time.
Michael Leitch, Ayumu Goromaru, Fumiaki Tanaka and Male Sa’u are all injured, Luke Thompson, Michael Broadhurst and Justin Ives have all said (at this stage) they have played their last game for their adopted country, while Akihito Yamada, Kenki Fukuoka and Yoshikazu Fujita are all training with the sevens squad.
By comparison, the Scots have 16 members of their World Cup squad, including 15 who played in the victory over Japan in Gloucester, England.
And perhaps even more importantly, they are missing just three first-choice players through injury.
The visitors also have a settled coaching crew in comparison to the Brave Blossoms, who are led by their second interim coach in as many months. So it is no surprise Japan starts as the underdog.
“No doubt Scotland are the favorites,” said Mark Hammett, who took over from Ryuji Nakatake prior to last week’s win over Canada.
“They played in the Six Nations and had that win over us at the World Cup. They are on an upward trend and have held their team intact. That’s the reality and that’s our challenge.”
The Scotland camp, meanwhile, was taking the diplomatic approach saying it expects a tough outing.
“Japan are an excellent team,” said assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys. “They have different personnel from the World Cup but they are still pretty effective. We will very much have to be on top of our game to get on top.”
One player who has an added incentive to win is veteran lock Hitoshi Ono.
Back in 2004, Ono was playing his fourth game for Japan as the Brave Blossoms were humiliated 100-8 by Scotland in Perth. Twelve years later, the 38-year-old is set to win his 97th cap.
“This is a big game for us and the first time for us to show off the new Japan,” he said. “We need to stay low in the scrum, use our speed and tempo in the line-out and work as one for the full 80 minutes.”
And what did he think of facing 207-cm lock Richie Gray?
“I don’t want him to feel comfortable,” he said. “We are the challengers and that’s how we need to approach the game.”
Amanaki Lelei Mafi was the standout performer for Japan when the teams last met until he was forced off with injury early in the second half — an event that proved to be the turning point in the game.
The NTT Communications Shining Arcs No. 8 is making his first appearance for Japan since the World Cup, as is fellow back row forward Hendrik Tui.
“There are a lot of new faces in the team,” said Tui, who has had a standout Super Rugby campaign for the Reds.
“It’s not the best situation and it’s been challenging for the coaches and players. But there are enough senior players remaining to ensure we can put up a good performance.”
One of those senior players is flyhalf Kosei Ono, who starts the game on the bench.
“Scotland will look to their set piece and play to their traditional strengths,” he said. “We need to play our own unique way from the first whistle to the last. There are guys in the team who know what it takes to compete at the highest level.
“We can’t really use (what happened last time) as motivation. We’ve got 80 minutes in front of us to change things.”
Hammett said in order to come out on top, Japan needed to win its own ball in the tight, play a high-tempo game and “aggravate and mess their ball up. But Scotland know that as well.”
Tui, meanwhile, singled out Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg as the main threat saying, “We have to contain him tomorrow.”
For the Scots, the plan is simple.
“We can’t lose focus or concentration,” said head coach Vern Cotter. “Or Japan will make us pay.”