TOKYO, July 26 (Reuters) - Japan’s World Cup ambitions will face a big test on Saturday against Fiji, an opponent they must be equipped to overcome if they have any hope of progressing to the knockout phase of the tournament they will host in less than two months’ time.
The Pacific islanders for their part will be aiming to beat “Brave Blossoms” in style and throw down a challenge to Wales and Australia, who the “Flying Fijians” face in Pool D of the World Cup.
Fiji take on the World Cup hosts at the newly-built Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium in Iwate in the opening round of the Pacific Nations Cup, a tournament they have won for the last four years.
After making history by beating South Africa in World Cup 2015, Japan have defeated only one top tier nation - Italy in 2018 - while suffering losses to Scotland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Still, Japan ran England close and drew with France last year and coach Jamie Joseph will hope that speedy, unstructured rugby fuelled by a high level of fitness will push his side past opponents two places higher than them in the world rankings.
Captain Michael Leitch told domestic media that the training camp held earlier in July was the most gruelling he had experienced - an echo of comments uttered by players from the 2015 World Cup squad which upset the Springboks.
But Japan have not played a test match this year and a Fiji team which beat the Maori All Blacks for the first time in 62 years this month will either vindicate or condemn Joseph’s choice of not exposing many of his players to top-level rugby.
Japan stalwarts, such as winger Kenki Fukuoka and loose forward Kazuki Himeno, did not play this year for the Tokyo-based Sunwolves, a team originally formed to help strengthen the national side.
Scrumhalf Shigeno Kaito and lock Luke Thompson are the only players on Saturday’s starting lineup who played regularly for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby this season.
The 38-year old Thompson, a veteran of three World Cup campaigns, will form a new second row partnership with test debutant James Moore.
South Africa-born flanker Pieter Labuschagne will be game captain on his Japan debut, with skipper Leitch dropped to the bench.
Number eight Amanaki Mafi will help counter Fiji’s physicality while mercurial wingers Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima will look to offer some homegrown magic to match the Fijian flair.
“Fiji have really improved in lots of areas,” Joseph said, according to Kyodo News. “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.”
Fiji coach John McKee is spoiled for choice with 23 players in his squad of 27 based overseas, mainly in England and France.
“We’re getting further down our journey towards Rugby World Cup and have a stronger understanding of our game plans and our systems,” New Zealander McKee said.
Loosehead prop Eroni Mawi, one of the four locally-based players on the squad, will start along with hooker Sam Matavesi and tighthead Manasa Saulo in a front row which outweighs its Japanese counterpart by 352 kilos to 335.
Stade Francais-based veteran Waisea Nayacalevu provides a scoring threat from the centre while wing Patrick Osborne provides an in-depth knowledge of his opponents having played in the Japanese Top League. (Reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro, editing by Nick Mulvenney)