'Our chances to win are a bit higher than 20 per cent,' reckon Russian underdogs
Russia plan to spoil Japan’s big day by bringing “chaos” to the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The Brave Blossoms begin their home tournament by hosting Lyn Jones’ side in Tokyo on Friday, raising the curtain on six weeks of rugby which culminate in the final in Yokohama on November 2.
But Russia – beaten 85-15 by Italy during a warm-up programme that also saw them lose to Connacht and Jersey – hope to spring a surprise by inflicting a defeat that would do serious damage to Japan’s ambition of making it out of a pool that also features Ireland, Scotland and Samoa.
“We watched the last four or five games of Japan,” said Russia captain Vasily Artemyev. “They have a very structured, organised game. We need to bring chaos into their organisation.”
Assistant coach Alexander Voytov added: “We are very glad and proud to play against Japan in the opening game. We have studied the opponent, we have done huge work, so we are ready at maximum. The match is going to be interesting and open. Our previous encounter with Japan has proved we can play at a higher level in terms of our physicality and aggression, especially in tackles and rucks.
“Our chances to win are a bit higher than 20 per cent (as Russia head coach Lyn Jones said on Wednesday). I know the players, I see our work, and I realise that there won’t be as much pressure on us as on the Japanese. Our chances are lower but still rather good. The guys will give themselves for 110 or 120 per cent.”
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Japan coach Jamie Joseph has made seven changes to the side beaten 41-7 by South Africa earlier this month. Joseph’s men had to overturn a 22-10 half-time deficit to win 32-27 when these sides last met in Gloucester in November and captain Michael Leitch admits the nerves have been evident in training.
“I’m so nervous I’ve been making all sorts of mistakes in training – there are so many people and so many cameras,” he said. “But I’m very proud to be part of the World Cup and to be captain of the Japan rugby team.
Leitch skippered the Japan side who pulled off the biggest upset in World Cup history when they beat South Africa 34-32 in Brighton four years ago. “In 2015 everyone expected us to lose – even the Japanese public,” he commented.
— Rugby Union Russia (@russiarugby) September 15, 2019
“We have a lot of respect for Russia and we were very lucky to win last time we played them. I wouldn’t say we were favourites – I’d say we were even going into this Test match and if we don’t play our best we’re going to struggle. But when we beat South Africa, all eyes were on us.
“The next game against Scotland, 30 million people were watching. Even though we lost, it inspired Japan. This time we’ve got the opportunity to inspire Japan again. We have trained well, prepared well and this will be Japan’s best World Cup ever.”
Assistant coach Tony Brown admitted controlling nerves at the host nation will be important. “That is always a challenge. We played South Africa two weeks ago and that’s been a long time. The players are keen to get out there but we have an experienced group so those guys have got the team under control and they understand what they have to do.
'When the Russian anthem was played, you couldn't hear a note. That's how hostile the crowd was.' https://t.co/CVy3wjlzvR
— liam heagney (@heagneyl) February 3, 2019
“It’s been an enjoyable week and they have not been nervous at all. The players played against the All Blacks here so there is no problem with them being too nervous against Russia, it’s not an issue for us. Russia are good at kicking the ball but we need to be pressuring, turn them into counter-attacks. We are good in the air with the high ball and being able to move the ball quickly will be important.”
Japan winger Kenki Fukuoka (right hamstring) and Amanaki Mafi (right shoulder) have been left out after picking up knocks in their last match against South Africa. Kazuki Himeno takes up the latter’s No8 role while Lomano Lemeki fills in at winger. Russian full-back Denis Simplikevich, who scored tries against Ireland and Australia in the 2011 World Cup, has been left out.
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