Brave Blossoms coach Jamie Joseph moves Amanaki Lelei Mafi to bench for second test against Italy

KYODO

Japan coach Jamie Joseph kept faith Thursday with the same 23 players that beat Italy last week as he named his side for Saturday’s second test at Noevir Stadium Kobe.

However, the former New Zealand and Japan international has tinkered with his starting XV, which shows one personnel change and one positional switch from the team that won the first test 34-17 in Oita.

Rio Olympian Yoshitaka Tokunaga comes in at blindside flanker with Kazuki Himeno moving to No. 8 and Amanaki Lelei Mafi dropping to the bench.

Mafi scored a try and was at the heart of Japan’s forward effort last week, but he has played a lot of rugby in the past few months and suffered a minor ankle injury last week.

“We made the decision to play Tokunaga early,” said Joseph. “He has played very well for the Sunwolves and deserves a start. Mafi has had a big workload for the Rebels and pretty much plays every minute of every game.”

Having Mafi come off the bench, Joseph said, will ensure Japan has a powerful weapon to call on in the closing stages, against an Italian side desperate to level the series and put an end to a disappointing run that has seen it win just one of its last 18 games.

Michael Leitch once again leads the Brave Blossoms from openside flanker and packs down with Himeno and Tokunaga in the backrow with Wimpie van der Walt and Samuela Anise in the second row.

Props Keita Inagaki and Koo Ji Won more than held their own in the tight last week and were also prominent in defense, while hooker Shota Horie had one of his best games for Japan in recent years.

Yu Tamura’s standout performance at flyhalf — both with the boot and in the way he managed the game — sees him start again alongside Fumiaki Tanaka and win his 50th cap for his country.

“Yu played very well last week,” Joseph said. “His time with the Sunwolves has been good. He is learning from playing with a professional like Hayden Parker, learning his preparation styles and getting used to different things. And we can see that coming through in his own way with this team.”

Timothy Lafaele and William Tupou were solid in midfield and are named again in the centers with last week’s three other try scorers, Kotaro Matsushima, Kenki Fukuoka and Lomano Lava Lemeki, making up the back three.

Yusuke Niwai, Shintaro Ishihara and Takuma Asahara provide cover for the front row on the bench, with Uwe Helu and Mafi the two other replacement forwards.

Yutaka Nagare, Rikiya Matsuda and Ryoto Nakamura are the reserve backs.