Japan head coach Jamie Joseph on Wednesday urged his entire squad to be ready to play their part at the Rugby World Cup after naming his team to face Russia in Friday’s tournament opener.
“It’s really exciting now that we’re a few days away from the World Cup,” Joseph said at the team’s hotel in Tokyo, after naming a starting XV that has been denied the services of injured winger Kenki Fukuoka.
“The team has prepared very well and we feel that we’re fielding a very strong team,” he said. “We haven’t got Kenki Fukuoka — he’s the only player that we didn’t consider through injury. But all in all, if we’re going to achieve our goals, we will have to use all our players. There’s no doubt that we’re going to get injuries along the way, and everybody is going to have to step up when the opportunity comes.”
World No. 10 Japan faces world No. 20 Russia — the third-lowest-ranked side in the 20-team tournament — at Tokyo Stadium on Friday to kick off Asia’s first-ever Rugby World Cup. Russia did not even qualify for the competition and claimed a place only because Romania and Spain were penalized for fielding ineligible players, but the Bears still proved a handful when they faced Japan in Gloucester, England, last November.
Russia led for most of that match until Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch scored a late try to seal a 32-27 win for his team, and Joseph is taking nothing for granted when the two teams meet again on Friday.
“We were very lucky to win the last time we played Russia,” he said. “We went into that test match last year and we prepared really well, very similar to this week. But they put us under a whole lot of pressure and we conceded penalties, they built a lead and when those sorts of things happen, then teams don’t play to their potential.
“I guess, as that’s our only experience as a team against Russia, I wouldn’t say we’re favorites,” he said. “I would say we’re even going into the test match, and if we don’t play to our best, we’ll really struggle because we’ve experienced that before.”
Joseph made seven changes for Friday’s game from the team that started Japan’s last match — a 41-7 defeat to South Africa in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, on Sept. 6.
Winger Lomano Lava Lemeki replaces Fukuoka, who lasted only four minutes of the game against South Africa before departing with a strained calf muscle, while Yutaka Nagare takes over at scrumhalf and forwards Shota Horie, Asaeli Ai Valu, Wimpie van der Walt, James Moore and Kazuki Himeno all come into the starting lineup.
“I’m very honored and pleased to have been chosen to start the opening game of the World Cup,” said the 25-year-old Himeno, who comes in at No. 8 in place of Amanaki Lelei Mafi, who was also hurt in the game against South Africa and has not had time to prepare fully. “Japan is the host nation, the fans have a lot of expectations and there is a lot of pressure. But in my mind, I’m enjoying the pressure. I’m very excited about the match.
“I always have an image in my mind that I can score,” Himeno said. “I always try to have that kind of image in my mind when I go to bed. But I don’t want to get too excited. It’s important to relax.”
Five of Friday’s starting lineup and three of the reserves have previous Rugby World Cup experience, with all of those players appearing in Japan’s famous 34-32 win over South Africa at the 2015 tournament in England under previous head coach Eddie Jones.
Captain Michael Leitch is now preparing to appear in his third World Cup, and the 30-year-old believes the Brave Blossoms have evolved over the past four years.
“Looking back, there was a transition from playing under Eddie to playing under Jamie, and it took some time to get used to it,” he said. “Where we have grown is with the leadership of the group and in our mentality. Having the Sunwolves (Japan’s Super Rugby team) has given the players a lot of confidence, and Japanese players know that they can compete with bigger players.”
Lemeki will be appearing in his first Rugby World Cup, but he has experienced playing on the big stage before. The 30-year-old was part of the Japan team that finished fourth in the rugby sevens competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and he is excited to be part of another grand occasion.
“Not many people can say they’ve done it, but I’m very excited and looking forward to it,” said Lemeki. “The atmosphere at the Olympics was pretty crazy. All the best athletes in the world were all in one place. I’m not too sure what to expect come Friday. Atmosphere-wise, I don’t know what it’s going to be like on the field. I know the Russians are going to come for us, but I’m quite excited.”