KUMAMOTO – Japan coach Jamie Joseph sprung a few surprises Thursday when he named his side for Saturday’s test with Romania, the first of three test matches in successive weekends against European foes.
The former New Zealand and Japan international opted to start a number of senior players on the bench for the game at Egao Kenko Stadium, as Japan looks to lay down a marker against a side it could meet at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“We are falling away in the last 15 minutes of the game with the Sunwolves so we need a strong bench,” Joseph said of the decision to leave experienced campaigners such as Keita Inagaki, Hendrik Tui, Yu Tamura and Kotaro Matsushima on the bench.
“We need experience to come on and lead the team in crucial parts of the game. The game is won at the end.”
With an injury forcing Harumichi Tatekawa to miss the game, Shota Horie leads a side that contains two uncapped players in inside center Derek Carpenter and backup hooker Yusuke Niwai.
There is no place, however, on the 23-man squad for veteran lock Hitoshi Ono, who remains stranded on 98 caps.
Michael Leitch, Japan’s captain at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, was recalled following a self-imposed exile and joins Amanaki Lelei Mafi and Yoshitaka Tokunaga in a powerful back row.
The trio will pack down behind Kotaro Yatabe and Uwe Helu, with Horie lining up between Koki Yamamoto and Takuma Asahara in the front row.
“Romania are very strong up front and obviously a lot bigger than us and they will target us there,” Joseph said. “We need to stick to our guns and play our way and not take them on at their game.”
Fumiaki Tanaka adds some much-needed experience at scrumhalf, where he will be partner with Jumpei Ogura.
Carpenter lines up with Timothy Lafaele in the midfield, with Kenki Fukuoka, Akihito Yamada and Ryuji Noguchi forming the back three.
Joseph has plenty of experienced reserves to call upon if the starters show signs of fatigue.
Inagaki and Heiichiro Ito join Niwai as the backup front rowers, with Yuya Odo and Tui, who like Leitch makes a welcome return to national team duty, the other reserve forwards.
Keisuke Uchida, Tamura and Matsushima provide 85 caps worth of experience as the replacement backs.
“Later on in the game, both teams will be tired and we need players who can exploit space and opportunities,” Joseph said. “And Tamura and Matsushima are those types of guys.”
The two sides have met five previous times, with Japan winning four games and Romania, which defeated Georgia earlier this year to win the Rugby Europe Championship, doing the same in Bucharest in 2004.
With Georgia having already qualified for the 2019 RWC by virtue of a third-place finish in its pool at the 2015 tournament, Romania is expected to be the top European qualifier and join Japan in Pool A along with Ireland (which the Brave Blossoms play on June 17 and 24), Scotland and the winner of the Europe-Oceania playoff.