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Leitch appointed Brave Blossoms captain again; Joseph shakes up lineup

Kyodo, AP

Michael Leitch was named Japan captain Thursday as the Brave Blossoms look to restore some pride this weekend in the second test against Ireland.

Head coach Jamie Joseph responded to a disappointing 50-22 defeat in the first test — in which he said the players were “not desperate enough” — by making eight changes and two positional switches.

Shota Horie and Fumiaki Tanaka are among the senior players dropped to the bench for Saturday’s game at Ajinomoto Stadium, while Luke Thompson returns to the side 18 months after announcing his retirement from international rugby.

“We are giving an opportunity to some players who made an impact off the bench last week and some players have been demoted,” Joseph said after training Thursday at Tatsumi Rugby Ground.

As for Leitch being restored to the captaincy, Joseph said the failure of co-captain Harumichi Tatekawa to recover from a calf injury and the need to give Horie “a break from the heavy responsibility of leading the team” meant Leitch was the obvious choice.

“He is a good player and leader,” Joseph said of the man who led Japan at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. “Having Shota come on in the second half with his energy will make a difference. To win the match we need to play for 80 minutes and we need our experienced leaders to come on and show composure, discipline and intensity in the later stages.”

Five of the eight changes come in the pack with Shintaro Ishihara, Yusuke Niwai and Takuma Asahara forming an all new front row. With five locks out injured, Thompson joins Uwe Helu in the engine room, while Shuhei Matsuhashi comes in to partner Leitch and Amanaki Lelei Mafi in the back row.

Yutaka Nagare and Jumpei Ogura form a new halfback partnership and there is a new pairing in midfield, too, with Yu Tamura and Kotaro Matsushima lining up in the centers.

“That has been forced on us,” said Joseph. “Timothy Lafaele pulled a groin last week in the captain’s run, William Tupou is suspended, Derek Carpenter has an infection in his leg and Tatekawa’s calf is still not right.

“But Tamura has the skill set we need at 12 and his experience will be crucial. We were reluctant to move Kotaro from the wing as he had a good game last week, but Akihito Yamada is back after an outstanding game against Romania and it means we have gone for speed in the centers.”

Yamada lines up on the right wing with Kenki Fukuoka and Ryuji Noguchi — who both scored tries last week — keeping their spots at left wing and fullback, respectively.

Keita Inagaki and Takayuki Watanabe join Horie as the backup front-rowers, with Kotaro Yatabe covering lock and Yoshitaka Tokunaga the back row.

Rikiya Matsuda and Ryohei Yamanaka join Tanaka as the reserve backs.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt made six changes to his starting lineup.

Kieran Treadwell and James Tracy come in for their first starts. Treadwell won his first cap off the bench last Saturday.

Josh van der Flier returns at openside flanker while Luke Marshall and Jacob Stockdale return at outside center and on the left wing, respectively.

Keith Earls returns to the right side and Andrew Conway takes over the fullback position vacated by the injured Simon Zebo.Japan squad: Shintaro Ishihara, Yusuke Niwai, Takuma Asahara, Luke Thompson, Uwe Helu, Michael Leitch, Shuhei Matsuhashi, Amanaki Lelei Mafi, Yutaka Nagare, Jumpei Ogura, Kenki Fukuoka, Yu Tamura, Kotaro Matsushima, Akihito Yamada, Ryuji Noguchi.

Bench: Shota Horie, Keita Inagaki, Takayuki Watanabe, Kotaro Yatabe, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Ryohei Yamanaka.

Ireland squad: Cian Healy, James Tracy, John Ryan, Kieran Treadwell, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Kieran Marmion, Paddy Jackson, Jacob Stockdale, Luke Marshall, Garry Ringrose, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway.

Bench: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Sean Reidy, John Cooney, Rory Scannell, Tiernan O’Halloran.