Japan head coach Jamie Joseph named five uncapped players in a 39-man squad for three Tests against Ireland, Portugal and Scotland. They warmed up for their northern hemisphere tour with a 32-23 defeat to Australia in Oita last weekend, a scoreline skewed slightly by a late try from Wallaby replacement hooker Connal McInerney.
The Brave Blossoms trailed by four points with the clock winding down and were within touching distance of following up on famous victories over South Africa (2015 World Cup) and Ireland and Scotland (2019 WC). Several players won their first caps in that game.
Considering that the Wallabies were coming off a Rugby Championship campaign and Japan had not played since losing 39-31 to Ireland in Dublin last summer, this was a superb effort from the home side. Understandably there are calls for Japan to be included in the Rugby Championship and they can provide further credence if they can win at the Aviva Stadium and Murrayfield over the next few weeks.
The five uncapped players are Shunsuke Asaoka, Shota Fukui, Taichi Takahashi, Jone Nakibula and Shogo Nakano. Celebrated New Zealand-born backrow Michael Leitch, who led Japan in the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, has stepped back from the captaincy and is replaced by South African-born Pieter Labuschagné.
Among the newer faces are Aussie backrows Ben Gunter and Jack Cornelsen and the 24-year-old Dylan Riley, who can play wing and fullback, and whose previous representative honours include Australian schoolboys and under-20s teams.
Japan’s brilliant wing cum fullback Kotaro Matsushima who plays with Clermont Auvergne in the French Top 14 is the only player not based in Japan. There are 12 of the starting team that beat Ireland in the 2019 World Cup and 17 of the matchday 23 in the touring party.
Winners of the Rugby Championship for the fourth time in the last five tournaments despite a defeat in the final match, 31-29, to world champions, South Africa, New Zealand remain the primary draw for European audiences.
The All Blacks, ranked two in the world behind the Springboks, face Wales this weekend having stopped off in Washington DC where they ran up a 104-14 win, scoring 16 tries. Head coach Ian Foster sent an advance party of 11 players straight to Cardiff, rather than stopping off with the remainder of the 39-man squad in America.
Aaron Smith has stayed in New Zealand awaiting the birth of his second child, while secondrows Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu also didn’t travel, which handed an opportunity to 20-year-old Josh Lord; he made his debut in the win over the USA, a match in which prop Ethan de Groot, scrumhalf Finlay Christie and centre Braydon Ennor made their first starts.
Secondrow Sam Whitelock will captain the All Blacks despite the presence of Sam Cane and Ardie Savea. Cane has only just returned from injury – he has been sidelined since March with a pectoral injury – and Foster wants to give him a chance to reacclimatise to Test rugby without the added responsibilities.
Savea led his country to the Rugby Championship title in Cane’s absence but as forwards coach John Plumtree, formerly of the Ireland setup, said: “Ardie’s been recognised for the great job he did in Australia, winning the Rugby Championship, his style of leadership was fantastic but it’s also great to have Sam come in, his experience. We think it’s good for the team now that Sam takes over.”
The Springboks did demonstrate that there are a few areas – the lineout for one – where a team can get after the All Blacks but the returning personnel and the probability that the All Blacks will rectify the issue makes it more likely to be a one-off situation.
The All Blacks have a fantastic squad of players, play a brilliant brand of rugby and for those lucky enough to get a ticket in Cardiff, Rome, Dublin and Paris over the next four weeks, they’ll be a joy to watch.
Argentina endured six straight losses in the Rugby Championship, the culmination of a tough 12 months for the Pumas. Head coach Mario Ledesma admitted that his players were tired after the tournament and rather than go straight into camp for the tournament he encouraged them to go "home" but as he noted: "Some go to Argentina, some go to England, some go to France [and also] Italy."
Ledesma has chosen a 32-strong squad that includes two uncapped players in Exeter Chiefs fullback cum wing Facundo Cordero and Jaguares hooker Ignacio Ruiz. Otherwise it is reasonably experienced as evidenced by the presence of some outstanding forwards such as Facundo Isa, Marcos Kremer, Tomás Lavanini, captain Julián Montoya, Guido Petti and Pablo Matera up front.
Behind the scrum, outhalf Nicolás Sanchez remains a creative fulcrum for Emiliano Boffelli, Jerónimo de la Fuente, Bautista Delguy and Matías Moroni. Ledesma said: “The boys have been playing 12 months in a row having finished up their club seasons in Europe, the July internationals, and then competing in the Australian tournament after only 10 days off.”
He cited a plethora of injuries (17) as another factor in the Pumas failure to match their achievements in the 2020 Rugby Championship when they beat New Zealand for the first time and drew twice with Australia. Ledesma also pointed to the fact that scrum, discipline and a failure to take opportunities created were fundamental flaws.
Montoya was asked what he wanted for the team ahead of games against France, Italy and Ireland and he replied: “A good end to the season would be to have good results and it would be a good way to close the year, reflecting everything we train, everything we say to ourselves and everything we do both on and off the pitch.
“That it is reflected in each of the games: to become strong in our fixed formations, a good defence, be demanding among ourselves to get the best of each one and, as I always say, put the Los Pumas shirt where it has to be, as high as we can.”
Australia coach Dave Rennie must plan without outhalf Quade Cooper, centre Samu Kerevi and flanker Sean McMahon as the trio have decided to play club rugby in Japan rather than tour with the national team. Cooper and Kerevi were key figures in the Rugby Championship.
How much of a destabilising effect it has on the Wallabies will be seen over the next three weeks. A trio of French-based Wallabies, secondrows Will Skelton and Rory Arnold, and hooker Tolu Latu have been named in the squad with Kurtley Beale tipped to make it a fourth. Arnold and Latu haven’t played for the Wallabies since the 2019 World Cup, while La Rochelle’s Skelton makes his first Aussie squad since 2016.
There are three uncapped players in Waratahs centres Izaia Perese and Lalakai Foketi and Rebels prop Pone Fa’amausili. The Aussies finished runners-up behind New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, including four straight wins against South Africa and Argentina and last weekend beat Japan in Oita.
Jacques Nienaber’s world champions and Lions’ tamers will be without a number of major players. Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk (hip flexor), wing Cheslin Kolbe (knee), the 2019 World Player of the Pieter Steph du Toit (shoulder), prop Frans Malherbe (neck), second/backrow Rynhardt Elstadt (ankle) and Munster secondrow RG Snyman (knee) are all out while centre François Steyn has retired from international rugby.
There are two uncapped players in the 32-strong squad, former underage international secondrow Salmaan Moerat and scrumhalf Grant Williams. Number eight Duane Vermeulen will join up with Ulster after the tour.
Beating the All Blacks in the final game restored their number one ranking helped to mitigate what was a disappointing Rugby Championship following their 2-1 series win over the British and Irish Lions. In Wales and England they face countries they beat in the semi-final and final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Eddie Jones isn’t one to stand on sentiment as the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, outhalf George Ford, wing Elliot Daly and hooker Jamie George – he got a reprieve when Luke Cowan-Dickie cried off with an injury – discovered when they were omitted from the England squad for the upcoming Tests.
The headlines centre on the presence of Harlequins outhalf Marcus Smith, called up to the Lions during the summer and likely to wear the 10 jersey for his country, and his club team-mate number eight Alex Dombrandt. The presence of another Lion Sam Simmonds illustrates a shift in Jones thinking, favouring athletes over the power game.
Centre Mark Atkinson, wing Tommy Freeman, scrumhalf Raffi Quirke and Australian-born hooker Nic Dolly are among those expected to win their first caps over the course of the three matches.
Wayne Pivac has had to cope with more injuries than a small field hospital and as today’s game against the All Blacks falls outside the official November Test window, also the England-based players such as Louis Rees-Zammit, Dan Biggar, Nick Tompkins and Taulupe Faletau. They will all be available for the remainder of Wales’ fixture schedule.
The Six Nations champions haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1953. Pivac has recalled a couple of old faces in centre Scott Williams – Cardiff’s Willis Halaholo tested positive for Covid – and wing Alex Cuthbert. Gareth Anscombe will face the country of his birth after 25 months on the sideline with a knee injury.
Rather appositely Lions and Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones will break the world record held by former New Zealand captain Richie McCaw for the most Test appearances from a single country in winning his 149th cap.
Head coach Gregor Townsend will be without foreign-based Lions players, captain and fullback Stuart Hogg, Chris Harris, Finn Russell, Rory Sutherland and Duhan van der Merwe for the game against Tonga as the match falls outside the international window.
Townsend has used the chance to give first caps to winger Rufus McLean, centre Sione Tuipulotu, loosehead Pierre Schoeman and secondrow Jamie Hodgson with a further four Marshall Sykes, Luke Crosbie, Jamie Dobie and Ross Thompson set to make their respective debuts from the bench.
Scotland’s summer tour was cancelled so their last match was a victory over France in the Six Nations Championship. They’ll be wary having lost to Tonga at home before (2012) but it should serve as the perfect tune-up for games against Australia, South Africa and Japan.
Antoine Dupont, for many the best player in the world, has taken over the captaincy from the injured Charles Ollivon. Head coach Fabien Galthié plumped for the Toulouse scrumhalf ahead of club captains such as backrow Gregory Alldritt and hooker Julien Marchand.
There are several notable absentees from the French three-quarter line through injury, Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Arthur Vincent and Pierre-Louis Barassi while hooker Camille Chat and prop Uini Atonio are also missing. Word from France is that Mathieu Jalibert may start at 10 with Romain Ntamack partnering Gael Fickou in the centre.
Galthié has never been afraid to give youth its chance and has included nine uncapped players in the squad including outstanding prospects Toulouse wing Matthis Lebel and Clermont centre Tani Vili. Putting patriotic allegiances to one side, the game that everyone wants to see is France against New Zealand.
Italy have a new head coach in New Zealander Kieran Crowley – he takes over from Franco Smith – a former World Cup winner as a player and for the past five years head coach at Benetton. He has previous international coaching experience with Canada. The former fullback did an excellent job in both those coaching roles.
The 23-year-old number eight Michele Lamaro takes over from hooker Luca Bigi as captain. Crowley, whose side take on New Zealand, Argentina and Uruguay said: “We have a group of very good young players who made their debut in the national team in a time span not very far from each other.
“The choice fell on one of the athletes [Lamaro] who showed great growth from a technical and leadership point of view with a constant maturation.” Italy, with some promising young players on foot of several years of good performances at underage level, would dearly love to carry some positive energy into the Six Nations where they last won a match in 2015.
Fiji will not include any of southern hemisphere-based coaches or players due to coronavirus restrictions and have instead selected a management team and squad from those in the United Rugby Championship, English Premiership, French Top 14 and Pro D2.
Gareth Baber will deputise for head coach Vern Cotter while former Ireland captain Rory Best is part of the coaching team for the Flying Fijians. Watch out for wing Josua Tuisova, one of the most devastating runners in the game. They will play Spain, Wales and Georgia.
Tonga head coach, the former Australian great Toutai Kefu, has not travelled to Europe as he is still recuperating from an attack by intruders in his home. He has though decided on a 40-man squad that play rugby across 10 different countries for matches with England, Scotland, the French Barbarians and Romania.
Former Wallabies loose forward Lopeti Timani is among 10 new caps – he qualifies having played for Tonga in the Olympic Sevens – while the squad also includes Toulon scrumhalf Sonatane Takulua, the most capped player in the squad with 42 appearances.
Former All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa also switched international allegiance but misses out through injury. Stade Français fullback Telusa Veainu is another high-profile name to keep an eye on, while it won’t be possible to miss the 30-year-old prop Ben Tameifuna, once of Racing 92 and now with Bordeaux Bègles.
Uruguay travel to the northern hemisphere for matches with Italy, Italy A and Romania still basking in the glow of qualifying for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. Los Teros overcame a first-leg deficit to beat the USA in the second game of the home and away playoff and confirm a place alongside hosts France, New Zealand and Italy at the tournament.
The 30-year-old centre Andrés Vilaseca captains the team while fullback Gastón Mieres is another standout player.
Fixtures and TV details
Scotland v Tonga, Murrayfield, 2.30pm (Amazon Prime)
Wales v New Zealand, Principality Stadium, 5.15pm (Amazon Prime)
England Women v New Zealand Women, Sandy Park, 2.30pm
Saturday, November 6th
IRELAND v Japan, 1pm, Aviva Stadium, (RTÉ/Channel 4)
Italy v New Zealand, Stadio Olimpico, 1pm (Amazon Prime)
Portugal v Canada, Lisbon, 2pm
France Women v South Africa Women, Stade de la Rabine, 2pm
Spain v Fiji, Madrid, 3pm
England v Tonga, Twickenham, 3.15pm (Amazon Prime)
Wales v South Africa, Principality Stadium, 5.30pm (Amazon Prime)
France v Argentina, Stade de France, 8pm (Amazon Prime)
Romania v Uruguay, Bucharest
Sunday, November 7th
Scotland v Australia, Murrayfield, 2.15pm (Amazon Prime)
England Women v New Zealand Women, Franklin's Gardens, 2.45pm (BBC Two)
Wales Women v Japan Women, Cardiff Arms Park, 5pm
Friday, November 12th
IIRELAND WOMEN v USA Women, RDS, 7.15pm (RTÉ Player)
Saturday, November 13th
Wales Women v South Africa Women, Cardiff Arms Park, 12.15pm
Italy v Argentina, Stadio Monigo, 1pm (Amazon Prime)
Scotland v South Africa, Murrayfield, 1pm (Amazon Prime)
France Women v New Zealand Women, Stade du Hameau, 2pm
French Baa-Baas v Tonga, Lyon, 3pm
IRELAND v New Zealand, Aviva Stadium, 3.15pm (RTÉ/Channel 4)
Portugal v Japan, Coimbra, 4.10pm
England v Australia, Twickenham, 5.30pm (Amazon Prime)
Sunday, November 14th
France v Georgia, Matmut Atlantique, 1pm (Amazon Prime)
England Women v Canada Women, Twickenham Stoop, 2.30pm (BBC Two)
Wales v Fiji, Principality Stadium, 3.15pm (Amazon Prime)
Scotland Women v Japan Women, DAM Health Stadium, 4.10pm (BBC Alba)
Saturday, November 20th
Italy v Uruguay, Stadio Lanfranchi, 1pm (Amazon Prime)
Scotland v Japan, Murrayfield, 1pm (Amazon Prime)
France Women v New Zealand Women, Stade Pierre Antoine, 2pm
IRELAND WOMEN v Japan Women, RDS, 3pm (RTÉ)
Georgia v Fiji, Aranjuez, 3pm
England v South Africa, Twickenham, 3.15pm (Amazon Prime)
Wales v Australia, Principality Stadium, 5.30pm (Amazon Prime)
France v New Zealand, Stade de France, 8pm (Amazon Prime)
Sunday, November 21st
IRELAND v Argentina, Aviva Stadium, 2.15pm (RTÉ/Channel 4)
England Women v USA Women, Sixways, 2.45pm (BBC Two)
Wales Women v Canada Women, Cardiff Arms Park, 5pm