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Japan name 21 uncapped players in 52-man training squad ahead of British and Irish Lions test

By Alex McLeod

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Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has named 21 uncapped players in a 52-man training squad – his first squad announcement since the 2019 World Cup – ahead of the nation’s historic clash with the British and Irish Lions in June.

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The Brave Blossoms are scheduled to face the Lions at Murrayfield in Edinburgh on June 26 in what will be the first-ever clash between the two sides.

Joseph has called on a mix of his 2019 World Cup stars, uncapped players, homegrown talent and foreign imports to prepare for the match.

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21 members of the World Cup squad, such as standout wing Kotaro Matsushima and captain Michael Leitch, have been recalled back into the training camp.

18 of those players were part of the match day side that featured in Japan’s first-ever World Cup quarter-final appearance in Tokyo two years ago, a match the Brave Blossoms lost 26-3 to eventual champions South Africa.

Among the cohort of uncapped prospects included in Joseph’s enlarged squad, there are a raft of names that will be familiar to Super Rugby fans.

Former Highlanders prop Craig Millar, who moved to Japan to join the Sunwolves in 2018, is one such player, as are ex-Blues lock Liaki Moli.

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The pair join the likes of former Hurricanes lock Mark Abbott, ex-Southern Kings midfielder Shane Gates and experienced outside back Gerhard van den Heever as uncapped foreigners who have completed residency requirements in order to become eligible for Japan.

All five players have subsequently been named in Joseph’s squad, as have three Australian youngsters – Dylan Riley, Jack Cornelsen and Ben Gunterwho are all one step closer to switching their allegiance to Japan.

Other notable uncapped players to have earned selection include those who have starred in the domestic Top League competition.

Tongan-born Kobelco Steelers No 8 Lui Naeata, who stands at 1.93m and 118kg, has been a dominant force for the reigning Top League champions since joining the club in 2018.

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As a result, the 27-year-old has been handed a maiden call-up to the national side and will compete with Highlanders star Kazuki Himeno, Canon Eagles powerhouse Amanaki Mafi and Suntory Sungoliath behemoth Tevita Tatafu for a place at the back of the scrum.

Likewise, halfback Naoto Saito has been in fine form while working in tandem with Beauden Barrett as halves partners at Suntory Sungoliath this season, and the 23-year-old is one of three scrumhalves in line for a potential test debut.

Based on the performances he has seen throughout the Top League this season, Joseph said he was “excited” for his side’s chances in the upcoming fixture, even if it has been 18 months since Japan last played a test match.

“It’s been a long time coming since our last squad announcement and I am very excited about our upcoming challenge against the British and Irish Lions,” he said in a statement.

“It will be a very special occasion for the team to play the Lions for the first time ever. Announcing this squad is the first step in our preparation.

“The 2021 Top League has produced some great team performances and the competition between the teams is a lot closer than past years which is great for the development of the game in Japan.”

Joseph added the Lions clash presents his uncapped players with a chance to prove their worth on the test scene following the departures of former senior players.

“Since the World Cup we’ve had players who have retired from international rugby or who have made themselves unavailable for selection for personal reasons,” he said.

“This creates an opportunity for new players to put their best foot forward and show they can play at international level.

“The squad has a good balance of experience, as well as players with the potential to play international rugby. We will need to grow the depth of our team over the next two years and this tour to Scotland is just the starting point.

“The final rounds of Top League will show us who can play their best rugby under the pressure of knockout rugby. We will name the final squad of 35 players after the final matches in May.”

Two days after the announcement of the final squad to travel to the Scottish capital, the selected players will assemble for a 12-day training camp in Beppu, Oita between May 26 and June 8.

The Brave Blossoms will then play a warm-up match against a yet-to-be-determined opponent in Shizuoka on June 12 before flying out to Scotland on June 16.

52-man Brave Blossoms training squad

Props: Shunsuke Asaoka (Toyota Verblitz)*, Keita Inagaki (Panasonic Wild Knights), Asaeli Ai Valu (Panasonic Wild Knights), Shinnosuke Kakinaga (Suntory Sungoliath), Kengo Kitagawa (Kubota Spears), Jiwon Koo (Honda Heat), Isileli Nakajima (Kobelco Steelers), Craig Millar (Panasonic Wild Knights)*, Yukio Morikawa (Suntory Sungoliath)*

Hookers: Atsushi Sakate (Panasonic Wild Knights), Shunta Nakamura (Suntory Sungoliath)*, Yoshikatsu Hikosaka (Toyota Verblitz)*, Kosuke Horikoshi (Suntory Sungoliath)

Locks: Mark Abbott (Munakata Sanix Blues)*, Wimpie van der Walt (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Ryota Hasegawa (Panasonic Wild Knights)*, Uwe Helu (Yamaha Jubilo), James Moore (Munakata Sanix Blues), Liaki Moli (Hino Red Dolphins)*

Flankers: Naoki Ozawa (Suntory Sungoliath), Ben Gunter (Panasonic Wild Knights)*, Jack Cornelsen (Panasonic Wild Knights)*, Shuhei Matsuhashi (Ricoh Black Rams), Pieter Labuschagne (Kubota Spears), Michael Leitch (Toshiba Brave Lupus)

No 8s: Tevita Tatafu (Suntory Sungoliath), Lui Naeata (Kobelco Steelers)*, Amanaki Lelei Mafi (Canon Eagles), Kazuki Himeno (Toyota Verblitz/Highlanders)

Halfbacks: Koki Arai (Canon Eagles)*, Taiki Koyama (Panasonic Wild Knights)*, Naoto Saito (Suntory Sungoliath)*, Kaito Shigeno (Toyota Verblitz)

First-Fives: Yu Tamura (Canon Eagles), Doga Maeda (NTT Communications Shining Arcs), Rikiya Matsuda (Panasonic Wild Knights)

Midfielders: Yusuke Kajimura (Suntory Sungoliath), Shane Gates (NTT Communications Shining Arcs)*, Ryoto Nakamura (Suntory Sungoliath), Dylan Riley (Panasonic Wild Knights)*, Timothy Lafaele (Kobelco Steelers)

Wings: Shota Emi (Suntory Sungoliath)*,  Jone Naikabula (Toshiba Brave Lupus)*, Siosaia Fifita (Kintetsu Liners)*, Shogo Nakano (Suntory Sungoliath)*, Kotaro Matsushima (Clermont Auvergne), Ataata Moeakiola (Kobelco Steelers)

Fullbacks: Seiya Ozaki (Suntory Sungoliath), Ryuji Noguchi (Panasonic Wild Knights), Gerhard van den Heever (Kubota Spears)*, Ryohei Yamanaka (Kobelco Steelers)

* – denotes new cap

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Japan name 21 uncapped players in 52-man training squad ahead of British and Irish Lions test

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