Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has named a strong side for the game against Russia this weekend, giving less experienced players a chance to prove themselves in the final test match before Rugby World Cup year.
Japan left their mark on Twickenham following their invigorating first-half performance against England, which saw them lead 15-10 at the break. Although they succumbed to a 35-15 defeat, Oliver Trenchard looks at the five big talking points for the Brave Blossoms.
No player epitomised the courageousness and braveness of Japan on Saturday more than Michael Leitch. The Toshiba back-row produced a gladiator performance in the greatest coliseum of rugby, reminiscent of that South Africa victory where he announced his arrival on the global stage. The 30-year-old made menacing runs and often made himself an option on the right wing alongside Akihito Yamada to reek havoc in the England defence. He was faultless in the line-out, majestically receiving, then offloading the ball to Tanaka. As captain, he opted to kick to touch in search of greater reward when three points could have been the easier option. His numbers speak for themselves: The most defenders beaten In the match (7), the joint-most clean breaks in the match alongside Kenki Fukuoka (5), more metres gained than any England player (88m) and not a single tackle missed. The Brave Blossoms are fortunate to have a captain like Leitch and should hope that his spirit and sheer tenacity rubs off on the younger players going into next year’s tournament.
If there were questions marks about Japan’s line-out after a few lost throws against New Zealand, they all but put those questions to bed against England with a superb set of line-outs led by Michael Leitch and hooker Atsushi Sakate, the latter in only his third year of professional rugby. The assortment of throws that the 25-year-old projected into the Twickenham air was reminiscent of the high-risk line-outs that Sunwolves have tried and tested since their inauguration into Super Rugby. A mixture of short, long, underarm and even one that purposely skipped the entire forwards and into the hands of the oncoming backs added to the gutsy and enthralling display that Japan treated the home faithful to.
Fumiaki Tanaka was key to Japan’s gameplan in the first half with his quick ball and pin-point delivery from the breakdown. He was at the breakdown fast and ensured that the ball was with the backs in lightening quick time to leave the England players chasing shadows. It came as a big surprise then that the experienced scrum half made way at the interval for the younger Yutaka Nagare. The replacement was clattered by the onrushing Mario Itoje less than five minutes into the second half after taking one too many steps at the ruck. It was that extra step Nagare took when picking up the ball at the breakdown that meant Japan were unable to find the same rhythm or play at the same tempo that they impressed with in the first 40 minutes. Tanaka, who had found himself drop down the pecking order under Jamie Joseph following Rugby World Cup 2015, may have just regained his spot as first-choice scrum half going into 2019.
The Blossoming Bromance
The centre combination of Timothy Lafaele and Ryoto Nakamura is developing into the most satisfying of bromances, not only due to their pre-match photos together on the Twickenham pitch. The duo are no stranger to one another having played alongside each other in the first half of the 2018 Super Rugby season for Sunwolves and appear to have reignited their partnership with some delightful interchanges of passes at times. It was no secret that Japan’s tactic lied with quick ball into the backs, underlined by both Lafaele and Nakamura enjoying 16 carries each, the most by any player on the Twickenham field. Nakamura was worthy of his try and in doing so made England fly-half George Ford look like a schoolboy. Both were resilient in defence, coming up as a line and picking their moments to savage the England backs. Indeed, Lafaele completed every tackle he attempted. Nakamura and Lafaele, complemented by full-back Will Tupou, who started alongside Lafaele against the All Blacks, will only benefit from playing together more in Super Rugby next season ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Fukuoka, Yamada and Tupou
Kenki Fukuoka deserves his share of the plaudits too, not only for sharing his surname with his place of birth. He was the fastest player in a while to grace the Twickenham turf, turning on the gas on each occasion the ball reached his hands on the left wing. He regularly got Japan out of trouble on the rare occasions they found themselves pegged back inside their own half by latching onto a Lafaele kick or beating his man. The 26-year-old made a total of 132 metres over the gain line, the most by an opposing player at Twickenham in over two years – an indication of how influential the former Japan Sevens was in the match.
Yamada and Tupou also deserve a mention. The latter was deployed at full back by Joseph specifically to deal with the potential threat of high balls and was almost faultless in coping with that threat. Yamada, meanwhile, took his fair share of high balls and produced his characteristic magic feet that would not have been out of place at a dance revolution arcade machine.
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has opted for experience in his Brave Blossoms team that will take on England in front of a sell-out 80,000 crowd at Twickenham on Saturday.
Familiar faces in Fumiaki Tanaka and Akihito Yamada, who announced their arrival on the international stage under then Brave Blossoms head coach Eddie Jones, are named in the starting XV together for the first time since June 2017. The duo come into the team at the expense of Sunwolves captain Yutaka Nagare and speedster Jamie Henry, who crossed the whitewash against the All Blacks two weeks ago.
The game against Jones' England marks a minor milestone for scrum half Tanaka, who is line to make his 69th test appearance for Japan to surpass Takashi Kikutani to become the Brave Blossoms' 5th-most capped player of all time.
Will Tupou is preferred at full-back to add physicality to deal with the high balls that Japan are expecting to face from England, while Ryoto Nakamura comes in at centre to make his first test start against a tier one nation.
In the pack, Suntory flanker Masakatsu Nishikawa is handed his first ever test start for Japan, meaning that the highly-tipped Kazuki Himeno moves from flanker to no.8. Captain Michael Leitch will make up the back row at blindside flanker.
There is also a Brave Blossoms return for prop Ji-won Koo who starts in the front row at the expense of Hiroshi Yamashita. There is one change in the second row from the team that faced New Zealand two weeks ago, with Uwe Helu replacing Samuele Anise.
World Rugby are set to announce China will host 2019 Rugby World Cup, following ‘significant and disturbing evidence’ from independent visits by Animal Welfare Organisations to venues that were set to host the tournament in Japan.
The sudden decision will come as a shock to most players, fans and officials, most notably Japan, who will now lose their place as a participating country at 2019 Rugby World Cup to China, ranked 68th in the world rankings. China will therefore become the lowest ranked nation to appear at Rugby World Cup.
Extensive research conducted at notable stadiums in the Kanto region that were in line to host 2019 Rugby World Cup, including Yokohama Stadium, Tokyo Stadium and Kumagaya Stadium indicated an abnormal level of underground mammals residing under the surface of the field. Widespread setts of the Asian Badger, a species predominantly native to parts of central Asia such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan, were found residing underneath the surface at some venues.
Guidance from the Japan Residential & Farm Union (JRFU), a NPO dedicated to protecting and safeguarding the lives of underground mammals in Japan and East Asia, issued a stern warning to World Rugby, which has not been taken lightly.
Under pressure from the JRFU and several other animal welfare charities, World Rugby will announce in the coming days the decision to move next year’s tournament to China. It is understood South Africa and USA were also candidates to host the competition at short notice, however, World Rugby were keen to keep the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Asia to grow the game in the continent.
It is no secret that World Rugby are keen to grow the game of rugby in Asia, with 140,986 children taking part in World Rugby’s Get into Rugby programme in 2017. Significant investment from Alisports has paved the way for numerous training facilities to built across the country. China Rugby Football Union are understood to be in discussions with Hong Kong Rugby Football Union about merging unions to create a stronger team to face Europe 2 in the opening game of the tournament in Guangzhou.
Iconic Welsh referee Nigel Owens has been named as an official for Japan's tests in June against Italy (x2) and Georgia.
The 46-year-old will take charge of the Brave Blossom's match against Georgia at Toyota Stadium on June 23rd, in addition to being assistant referee for the two tests against Italy.
Australian referee Nic Berry will officiate Japan v Italy at Oita Dome on June 9th, while New Zealand official Nick Briant will referee the same fixture in Kobe a week later.
Meanwhile, Japan referee Shuhei Kubo has been named as the official to take charge of Canada v Scotland on June 9th.
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph today announced his 33-man squad for June tests against Romania and Ireland. Michael Leitch returns to the team for the first time since the 2015 RWC, having opted to sit out of the 2016 Brave Blossoms fixtures, while Hendrik Tui is also named in the squad by Joseph.
Japan play host to Romania in Fukuoka on June 10th, before facing two tests against Ireland in Shizuoka and Tokyo in the following weeks.
Derek Carpenter, who has qualified to represent to Japan through residency, earns his first call-up to the Brave Blossoms team. There also first inclusions for William Tupou, Canon and Sunwolves front-row Yusuke Niwai and Suntory's Shota Emi.
Japan will assemble in Fukuoka for a week's training prior to the Romania test, before training at Shizuoka's Ecopa Stadium and then Tokyo for a week each.
Japan have announced four test matches for 2017, among them a first home meetings against Australia in November.
Fellow tier two nation Romania will take on the Brave Blossoms in Japan on June 10, before they face two clashes against Ireland on June 17 and 24. Japan have will look to build on an impressive record against Romania, a side against whom they have won four of their five tests.
One of those tests will be played at Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium in Tokyo, we believe. Ajinomoto Stadium, which hosted Japan’s second test against Scotland in June 2016, is unlikely to be used due to match taking place half-way through the domestic football season, with FC Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy sharing the stadium.
The Wallabies will then visit Japan for a test on November 4, with a venue yet to be decided. Further tests against a tier two nation will be announced later in the new year.
Jamie Joseph marked a new era in Japanese rugby on Monday, naming his first Brave Blossoms squad for November tests against Argentina, Georgia, Wales and Fiji.
Yamaha accounted for a large part of the squad, with four forwards called up by Joseph after their impressive start to the Top League this season. Ricoh's Shuhei Matsuhashi, Honda Heat and Japan 7s star Mano Lemeki and Toshiba youngster Malgene Ilau are among the 16 players to receive their first call-ups.
Michael Leitch and Hendrik Tui were notable omissions from the Japan squad, with the duo having played non-stop rugby since last year's World Cup in two Top League seasons sandwiched either side of the 2016 Super Rugby campaign. Ayumu Goromaru is still regaining fitness at new club Toulon and was not an option for Joseph this time round.
Joseph said: Ricoh's Shuhei Matsuhashi, Honda Heat and Japan 7s star Mano Lemeki and Toshiba youngster Malgene Ilau are among the 16 players to receive their first call-ups.
Joseph: "We have 10+ players unavailable for selection due to retirement or personal reasons so selection was based on giving new players who have been performing well in the Top League an opportunity to play at international level."
The JRFU today announced Japan will take on Argentina on November 5th 2016 at Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, Tokyo.
The test against Los Pumas will be the first of four November fixtures scheduled for new head coach Jamie Joseph and his side. Japan will play Georgia, Fiji and Wales following the encounter with Argentina.
The Brave Blossoms have faced Argentina on five prior occasions, most recently in April 2005 in a try-fest in Buenos Aires with Argentina prevailing 68-36 winners. Japan have won just one of the five test matches with Los Pumas to date - that victory, however, came in the most recent clash in Tokyo back in September 1998 (44-29).
Ayumu Goromaru will not be at Yamaha Jubilo for the 2016-17 Top League season, paving the way for a move to French club Toulon. News of the Japan full-back’s exit from the Shizuoka-based club broke only yesterday in the Japanese media, but we understand Goromaru said his farewells to club players at the start of the year.
The only stumbling block remaining is his contract with Yamaha Jubilo, which expires in 2017, with a club official stating “We have had no response from Goromaru and are waiting for a reply from him.”
Goromaru, who has struggled to impress at Super Rugby club Queensland Reds, scoring just 20 points in his 256 minutes in his debut season.
The Japanese heartthrob will not bring his family with him to France, should the move to Toulon go ahead as planned as speculation mounts regarding his private life.
One player who will be at Yamaha next season will be Gerhard van den Heever. The South African winger will join the club for the 2016-17 season from Munster on a one-year deal.