Rugby

Brave Blossoms, Azzurri set for Rugby World Cup dress rehearsal in Oita

Kyodo

Jamie Joseph’s Japan team and the city of Oita will get a taste of what to expect at the 2019 Rugby World Cup on Saturday when the Brave Blossoms take on Italy at Oita Bank Dome.

While Japan and the Azzurri have been drawn in different pools, Joseph’s side will play at least three European teams when the tournament kicks off on Sept. 20, 2019, including Ireland and Scotland, which faces Italy on a regular basis in the Six Nations.

Leonardo Ghiraldini, playing in his 95th test, leads an Italian side that will look to make its presence felt in the set piece, an area Japan struggled in last year when it played Ireland.

Former NEC Green Rocket Dean Budd and fellow lock Alessandro Zanni, playing in his 105th test, will be key to that as they go up against Japan’s inexperienced second-row pair of Wimpie van der Walt and Samuela Anise.

“We’ve chosen the team we believe can perform the best against Japan,” said Italy coach Conor O’Shea, whose side wasbeaten 29-27 by Scotland on the final weekend of this year’s Six Nations.

Fullback Matteo Minozzi was one of the stars of the tournament despite Italy losing all five games and Japan will need to keep him and the other Italian backs in check.

Joseph said in the buildup to Saturday’s game the experience of playing Italy (which it meets next week in Kobe) and Georgia (which plays in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on June 23) would be invaluable ahead of the World Cup, where Japan will also take on Russia and most likely Samoa.

“This is a great opportunity to grow depth and will be a huge challenge for the team,” he said.

“We have seen some key areas that we need to improve. In the structured game it’s our operating speed, we need to perform faster than Italy and Georgia can defend. We need to improve our set-piece defense and brush up our skills.”

Japan’s last game saw it draw 23-23 with France — which beat Italy 34-17 in February — and the return of John Plumtree as defense coach should hold it in good stead.

Michael Leitch, Kazuki Himeno and Amanaki Lelei Mafi form a back row that any Tier One nation would be proud of, while wing Kenki Fukuoka’s speed could prove decisive if his teammates are able to generate enough go-forward ball.

While neither Japan nor Italy will play any World Cup games in Oita — their quarterfinals should they progress will be in Tokyo — the city will host three pool games and two round-of-eight games.

Local organizers are hoping for a big crowd Saturday despite expected rain as the stadium and city hold a test run for next year’s festivities.