England and Eddie Jones have chosen to roll the dice against Japan at Twickenham on Saturday, bringing in a number of fresh faces and giving them an opportunity to put down a marker at international level.
Joe Cokansiga is making his debut on the wing, whilst starters Alec Hepburn, Zach Mercer and Alex Lozowski have less than 10 caps between them. Ted Hill is also set to debut from the bench, with the 19-year-old enjoying a stellar season with his club Worcester Warriors.
As for Japan, they have opted for a much more settled line-up, even if it doesn’t necessarily boast a major experience advantage, as they bid to upset the odds in their first ever visit to Twickenham.
Keita Inagaki (RugbyPass Index score – 68)
Japan’s starting loosehead is no pushover in the scrum, and he was one of they key contributors in that historic victory over the Springboks. He has taken on more experienced operators than Harry Williams and come out with credit before, so the Exeter man will need to be at his best on Saturday.
The 28-year-old has the relatively small amount of 23 caps to his name, but his experience includes a Rugby World Cup, growing Super Rugby exposure with the Sunwolves and a wealth of rugby in Japan’s Top 14 with the Panasonic Wild Knights. Unfortunately for Inagaki, he is without his long-term hooking partner Shota Horie, a combination which has brought Japan plenty of success, but starting hooker Atsushi Sakate is also a teammate at club level in both the Top League and Super Rugby, so there should be a good understanding between the pair.
Michael Leitch (RPI score – 65)
A name that should be slightly more familiar to English rugby fans, with the Cherry Blossoms’ captain a regular feature in Super Rugby, initially with the Chiefs and now with the Sunwolves. With the exception of scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka, Leitch is the most experience player in the Japan squad, with 57 test caps to his name.
Leitch has prospered in Super Rugby as a balanced operator in the back row, capable of piling up eye-watering tackle numbers, influencing the breakdown or providing a necessary carrying threat, depending on the game situation and what his team needs. He will certainly test England’s fringe defence and keep them honest, whilst his work at the lineout and the maul will be one of Japan’s main scoring threats on Saturday.
Kenki Fukuoka (RPI score – 62)
Speaking of scoring threats, another one of Japan’s key weapons will be wing Fukuoka. He has 17 tries in his 27 international matches to date, although that should be treated with a pinch of salt, as seven of those tries have come in three games against the Philippines and Korea.
That said, he is an elusive threat in the wider channels, using his smaller height and slighter frame to his advantage offensively. He will be matched up with Cokanasiga on Saturday, which is quite the physical mismatch in England’s favour, but Jones will have to be wary about kicks in behind Cokanasiga, as the big Bath wing will be under constant pressure from the more agile Fukuoka. Do not be surprised if the Panasonic Wild Knights wing sniffs out a try in broken play this weekend.
Watch: England defence coach John Mitchell talks to RugbyPass ahead of the game against Japan.
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