TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan take on Italy in Kyushu on Saturday with both sides hoping to lay the foundations for a positive run towards next year’s Rugby World Cup with a victory in their opening mid-year international.
The Oita Bank Dome will host five matches at the 2019 World Cup, including two quarter-finals, and if either side are to harbour any hope of progressing that far in the tournament, they urgently need to string together some solid results.
This time last year, Japan started their home summer with a hard fought victory over Romania before suffering two heavy defeats against Ireland and then a similar mauling at the hands of Australia in Yokohama a few months later.
Despite enjoying a victory against Tonga and a draw with the French in Paris last November, Japan’s last success over a top tier nation was their famous pool stage win against South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.
Head coach Jamie Joseph and captain Michael Leitch are both well aware of how important test wins against Italy and Georgia this month could be in building support for the Brave Blossoms before they host the tournament.
“The Japanese national team have not won much recently, so tomorrow’s game will be our big chance,” Leitch told reporters on Friday. “I hope we can win and make everyone happy.”
Italy are also in dire need of a win of any kind, having lost all five of their Six Nations games, culminating in a 29-27 defeat to Scotland in Rome.
The Azzurri have only won once in their last 17 fixtures — a 19-10 victory over Fiji in November — and will go into the June tests without talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse, who has been rested for the two-match series against Japan.
Stand-in captain Leonardo Ghiraldini, who will be winning his 95th cap on Saturday, is desperate to see some improvement in the team.
“Obviously we are a bit disappointed by the results in the Six Nations, especially in the last week with how we performed against Scotland,” the hooker said.
“We are a young team but at the same time we know we need to take a step forward now because we have everything; we have talent, physicality, everything to play at this level and to win at this level.
“We need to take a step forward and we are ready for that.”
An open game is expected in the tropical heat and humidity of Oita with both sides looking to play to their strengths, and Ghiraldini believes the Azzurri are capable of handling the pressure.
“Obviously the intensity of the game will be crucial and that is what we are prepared for,” he added.
The two sides will meet again in Kobe next weekend before Japan take on Georgia in Toyota on June 23.
Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by John O'Brien