Pool A: Brave Blossoms ready to do Japan proud
Tournament hosts will be hoping for a repeat of their famous win over Springboks in 2015
Japan captain Michael Leitch. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty
Who are they
Cast your mind back to Brighton in 2015, and one of the most stunning victories in rugby history as Japan beat the mighty Springboks. Japan have managed a victory over Italy last summer and a draw with France in Paris in November 2018 as standout performances since the last World Cup in 2015 and that momentous win. It’ll be interesting how they handle the level of expectation as the host nation. They have never managed to escape their pool having qualified for every World Cup since 1987. This year they come up against an Ireland side who are in relative disarray and a Scotland side who aren’t the biggest physically. The Brave Blossoms will fancy their chances against both, with the final round fixture against Scotland particularly mouth-watering. Ranked ninth in the world, Japan recently won the Pacific Nations Cup, with their 34-21 win over Fiji suggesting they will perhaps be the best side on show outside of the Tier One nations.
The former All Blacks backrow Jamie Joseph took over from Eddie Jones in guiding the fortunes of the Brave Blossoms. He hasn’t been afraid to experiment or bring in foreign born players if they add value to the squad including Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne, who recently led the team against Fiji and James Moore.
Michael Leitch, the New Zealand born backrow, has been an inspirational figure for his adopted country, most famously in leading the team to their famous World Cup victory over the Springboks in 2015. He has just returned from injury and will play in the Pacific Nations Cup that’s taking place in Fiji.
The one to watch
Amanaki Mafi, the Tongan born number eight, has been selected in Japan’s RWC squad. He has an assault charge hanging over him dating back to July 2018 and an incident involving his then Rebels teammate Lopeti Timani. With the trial not taking place until January 27th 2020 he has been cleared to play - he is an abrasive, bally carrying number eight who scores tries and will give Ireland plenty to think about.
Their RWC moment
Japan’s 34-32 victory over South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup is a standout, the late try from replacement wing Karne Hesketh allowing them to produce the biggest upset in the history of the tournament. They turned down a late penalty chance that would have given them the opportunity to level the scores in going for the win.
Best RWC finish
Pool stages: 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015
Japan were ridiculously unlucky not to qualify for a quarter-final in 2015, winning three of four pool matches but still losing out to Scotland and South Africa. If they can get some ball then they are a handful for most teams in attack but the major issue remains the set piece and whether they have the ballast to survive when teams shut down their wide game.
Backs: Kaito Shigeno, Fumiaki Tanaka, Yutaka Nagare, Yu Tamura, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka, Ataata Moeakiola, Lomano Lemeki, William Tupou, Ryoto Nakamura, Timothy Lafaele, Kotaro Matsushima, Ryohei Yamanaka
Forwards: Michael Leitch (capt), Keita Inagaki, Yusuke Kizu, Jiwon Koo, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Valu, Takuya Kitade, Atsushi Sakate, Shota Horie, Luke Thompson, Wimpie van der Walt, Uwe Helu, James Moore, Hendrik Tui, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno, Amanaki Mafi