OTSUCHI, IWATE PREF. – Japan coach Jamie Joseph named his team Thursday for the Brave Blossoms’ first test of the year and the first of just four games before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in September.
Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne, James Moore and Yusuke Kizu are all set to win their first caps as the World Cup hosts take on Fiji at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium on Saturday in the opening round of the Pacific Nations Cup.
“A wee bit of both,” Joseph said when asked if he had picked a team to battle the athleticism of the Fijians or simply chosen players he needed to see play in the build-up to the World Cup.
“Fiji have really improved in lots of areas. They still love their unstructured rugby and are really dangerous and threatening from broken play and they are full of athletes who can all offload. (But) we also wanted to give an opportunity to some of our players to play.”
With Michael Leitch slated to come off the bench, Labuschagne will lead his adopted country in the No. 7 jersey, joining up with blindside flanker Kazuki Himeno and No. 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi in a powerful back row as the Brave Blossoms look to counter the traditional Fijian flair.
“It’s a massive honor and privilege to play in the Brave Blossoms jersey representing a great country like Japan,” said Labuschagne.
The second row is a mixture of the old and new with Moore lining up alongside Luke Thompson, who will win cap No. 65, while Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie and Asaeli Ai Valu form an all Panasonic Wild Knights front row.
In addition to coping with the new law introduced at scrum time, the pack will need to be on their toes in the loose to provide enough turnover ball for the backs to threaten the visitors.
Kaito Shigeno and Yu Tamura pair up at nine and 10, with Ryoto Nakamura and Timothy Lafaele in the midfield and Kenki Fukuoka, Kotaro Matsushima and Will Tupou in the back three.
On the bench, Atsushi Sakate, Shogo Miura and Kizu provide the front-row cover with Wimpie van der Walt and Leitch, who has not played since December 2018 as the result of a groin injury, the two other reserve forwards.
Yutaka Nagare, Rikiya Matsuda and Lomano Lava Lemeki are the back-up backs.
“We are fit and ready to go,” said Joseph.
Fiji, for its part, named a strong side led by flanker Dominiko Waqaniburotu, with coach John McKee saying his side needed to be aware of the pace at which the hosts will play.
“They will play a very up tempo and a very fast game so we need to work very hard in our defensive system and effort to deny Japan opportunities to score,” McKee said, adding that it was really important for the Fijians to win the physical collision.
The PNC sees the six participating nations split into two pools with teams playing the three sides not in their group. Japan plays Tonga in Osaka on Aug. 3, which like the game in Kamaishi is already sold out, before the Brave Blossoms fly to Fiji to take on the United States on Aug. 10.
The winner of the competition will be the team that records the most points across the tournament schedule.