CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - Japan will be looking to end a three-game losing streak Saturday when they take on Russia at Gloucester’s Kingsholm Stadium in a dress rehearsal of the opening game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Following games against a World XV and two sides that have previously won the Webb Ellis Cup, the Brave Blossoms face a team that only made next year’s tournament by default after Romania, Spain and Belgium were disqualified for fielding ineligible players.
“In the past couple of weeks we’ve played the best teams in the world in the All Blacks and England and I thought our team performed very well,” said head coach Jamie Joseph.
Despite having lost their last three games, Joseph said the players, led by Michael Leitch, are heading in the right direction.
“We’ve slowly been progressing in getting better each week and the team is improving, so the players are understanding what their roles are,” Joseph said.
And those roles will face a different challenge on Saturday against a side that will try to use brute force to overcome speed.
“Russia holds a different challenge for us. They are actually bigger than England and very powerful,” Joseph said.
“We will try to keep the game as fast as possible but the conditions in England don’t really lend themselves to Japanese rugby, which is a fast, unstructured, quick game.
“We have to make sure we are able to deal with the size, physicality and power of the Russian team and they have to make sure they can deal with the speed, skill and (unstructured style) of the Japanese team.”
Joseph has made four changes and one positional switch from the side that started against England last week.
In the forwards, a hand injury to Uwe Helu means Kazuki Himeno shifts to lock with Hendrik Tui named at No. 8, while in the backs there is a new halfback pairing in Kaito Shigeno and Rikiya Matsuda with Amanaki Taiyo Lotoahea coming in on the right wing.
There are plenty of other changes on the bench, too, with center Yusuke Kajimura set to win his first cap while hooker Kosuke Horikoshi and back-row forward Isileli Nakajima will make just their second appearances for their country.
Lotoahea’s inclusion highlights one of the biggest problems Joseph faces as the wing is the tallest player in the Japan side at 191 cm.
But Joseph said locks Wimpie van der Walt and Himeno are ideally suited to the game Japan wants to play.
“They have a huge work rate,” Joseph stated. “And the type of game we want to play lends itself to mobility, so we need players who can work hard off the ball as well as on the ball.”
Last week, Japan looked far better when it kept the ball in hand against England, and the inclusion of Shigeno and Matsuda would seem to indicate that will be the approach this week.
Shigeno has the ability to attack around the fringes while Matsuda has made an impact, raising the pace of the game, every time he has come off the bench.
“It will be a different match from Twickenham and against the All Blacks as we have picked a very mobile pack because of the style we want to play,” Joseph said.
“Kaito has a running game, a fast pass and a good kicking game. He has all the skill sets we want in a nine,” Joseph said of Shigeno, who missed the entire 2017-2018 Top League season after his transfer from the NEC Green Rockets to Toyota Verblitz was blocked.
Japan and Russia have met five times with the Brave Blossoms winning four, the last being on neutral territory in Colwyn Bay, Wales, in 2013.
That tour also marked the first time Japan played at Kingsholm when a second-string side lost to Gloucester.
Since then the Brave Blossoms have played three more matches at the ground, beating Georgia in a World Cup warm-up game in 2015, before falling to Scotland and defeating the United States in the actual tournament.
Starting XV — Keita Inagaki, Atsushi Sakate, Koo Ji Won, Kazuki Himeno, Wimpie van der Walt, Michael Leitch, Masakatsu Nishikawa, Hendrik Tui, Kaito Shigeno, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka, Ryoto Nakamura, Timothy Lafaele, Amanaki Taiyo Lotoahea, William Tupou
Bench — Kosuke Horikoshi, Masataka Mikami, Hiroshi Yamashita, Yuya Odo, Isileli Nakajima, Yutaka Nagare, Yu Tamura, Yusuke Kajimura