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World Cup stars return as Jamie Joseph confirms Japan squad to face British and Irish Lions

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Clive Rose - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

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Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has named a raft of 2019 World Cup heroes in his 36-man squad to face the British and Irish Lions in Edinburgh next month.

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Joseph confirmed the squad a day after the Top League final, trimming 16 players from the 52-man wider training squad announced in April.

Of those who made the cut, 19 players from the Brave Blossoms squad that made an historic run to the 2019 World Cup knockout stages on home soil have returned for what is set to be Japan’s first test match since their quarter-final defeat to South Africa.

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Headlining those returnees is Toshiba Brave Lupus loose forward Michael Leitch, who will resume captaincy duties of the national side.

Leitch will be joined by fellow World Cup stars such as Highlanders No 8 Kazuki Himeno and Clermont wing Kotaro Matsushima.

Both Himeno and Matsushima will be unavailable for Japan’s warm-up fixture against the Sunwolves in Shizuoka on June 12 due to their club commitments overseas.

Joseph has also named a cohort of 13 uncapped players, many of whom are foreigners who have qualified for Japan on residency grounds.

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That contingent includes Kiwi forwards Craig Millar and Mark Abbott, South African backs Shane Gates and Gerhard van den Heever, and Australian flankers Ben Gunter and Jack Cornelsen.

Millar, Abbott, Gates and van den Heever all played Super Rugby for the Sunwolves under the guidance of Joseph and assistant coach Tony Brown between 2018 and 2019, as did uncapped flyer Semisi Masirewa, who has also been named in the Japan squad.

There are also 16 players who featured in Sunday’s Top League final, seven of whom played for the title-winning Panasonic Wild Knights side, while a further nine were part of the Suntory Sungoliath team.

Notable omissions from the 16 players who were cut from the extended training squad include 2019 World Cup prop Isileli Nakajima, ex-Blues and Sunwolves lock Liaki Moli, recently-departed Kobelco Steelers star Lui Naeata, former Australian U20 midfielder Dylan Riley and ex-Chiefs wing Ataata Moeakiola.

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Following their match against the Sunwolves, Japan will fly out to Scotland on June 16 to play their first-ever test against the British and Irish Lions at Murrayfield on June 26 in front of a restricted crowd of 16,500.

The Brave Blossoms will then face off against Ireland at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on July 3.

Brave Blossoms squad to face British and Irish Lions, Ireland and Sunwolves

Props: Keita Inagaki (Panasonic Wild Knights), Asaeli Ai Valu (Panasonic Wild Knights), Shinnosuke Kakinaga (Suntory Sungoliath), Jiwon Koo (Honda Heat), Craig Millar (Panasonic Wild Knights)*, Yukio Morikawa (Suntory Sungoliath)*

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

Locks: Mark Abbott (Munakata Sanix Blues)*, Wimpie van der Walt (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Uwe Helu (Yamaha Jubilo), James Moore (Munakata Sanix Blues)

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

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

Halfbacks: Koki Arai (Canon Eagles)*, Naoto Saito (Suntory Sungoliath)*, Kaito Shigeno (Toyota Verblitz)

First-Fives: Yu Tamura (Canon Eagles), Rikiya Matsuda (Panasonic Wild Knights)

Midfielders: Shane Gates (NTT Communications Shining Arcs)*, Ryoto Nakamura (Suntory Sungoliath), Timothy Lafaele (Kobelco Steelers)

Wings: Shota Emi (Suntory Sungoliath)*, Siosaia Fifita (Kintetsu Liners)*, Semisi Masirewa (Kintetsu Liners)*, Kotaro Matsushima (Clermont Auvergne), Lomano Lava Lemeki (Munakata Sanix Blues)

Fullbacks: Gerhard van den Heever (Kubota Spears)*, Ryohei Yamanaka (Kobelco Steelers)

* – denotes new cap

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World Cup stars return as Jamie Joseph confirms Japan squad to face British and Irish Lions

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