Must-win opening match puts the heat on Japan
The public awareness campaign has gone into overdrive at the Rugby World Cup, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe receiving the red-and-white jersey of the national team from captain Michael Leitch.
And soon Leitch’s line-up will have their first genuine taste of the expectation which comes with being tournament host when they play Russia in the opening match on Friday.
An upset win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup swelled Japan’s fan-base at home and abroad and has added to the expectation that they may also be the giant-killers of this year’s tournament.
New Zealand-born Leitch was one of eight players selected in Japan’s match-day 23 who were involved in that boilover against the two-time RWC champions four years ago.
Japan will have to be quickly into stride as they need to beat Russia by a large margin if to have a chance of progressing to the knockout rounds.
Points differential could come into play in deciding the top two teams in what seems to be an even pool.
“We have prepared well for our goal of making the quarterfinals,” Leitch said after his team’s 41-7 loss to South Africa in their final World Cup warm-up game earlier this month.
The loss to South Africa was not in any way indicative of Japan’s comparative standing with Tier One nations or of any decline in its ability since the last World Cup.
Coach Jamie Joseph used the match for experimentation and to adapt a game plan to those of their pool opponents.
What does it take to be considered the world's best 10? When you break down the Springboks' game plan, it's clear that Handre Pollard isn't the main man, leaving him short in many areas of the game compared to his rivals writes @bensmithrugby https://t.co/CWsg1fjm95 #RWC2019
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 18, 2019
Former All Black Joseph is aware of the pressure that will be on his squad in the opening match and for the remainder of the World Cup, and is sure his team can cope.
“Everyone understands how important this event is going to be but none more than our staff and the players themselves. We want to make everyone proud,” he said.
Meanwhile, Russia may still be startled to find themselves at the centre of the spectacle after the opening ceremony.
The 20th-ranked Russians were lucky to qualify, doing so only after Romania was disqualified for fielding ineligible players.
Their warm-up form has not been impressive given they have conceded 162 points including 24 tries in their last three matches.
Japan: William Tupou, Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Lomano Lava Lemeki, Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare, Kazuki Himeno, Pieter Labuschagne, Michael Leitch (capt), James Moore, Wimpie van der Walt, Asaeli Ai Valu, Shota Horie, Keita Inagaki. Res: Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Jiwon Koo, Luke Thompson, Hendrik Tui, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Ryohei Yamanaka.