Japan name side for Rugby World Cup opener

Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has made seven changes to his starting XV for the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup against Russia in Tokyo.

Despite losing heavily in their final World Cup warm-up match against South Africa in Kumagaya a week-and-a-half ago, the Brave Blossoms impressed in many aspects during the 41-7 defeat.

However, even with a strong showing in the second half, Joseph has rung the changes for the first match of his side’s home tournament.

Blindside flanker Michael Leitch will become the second player to captain Japan at two World Cups, following in the footsteps of former loose forward Takuro Miuchi.

The 30-year-old will lead a forward pack which will have five new faces from the side that faced the Springboks.

Loosehead prop Keita Inagaki is the only front rower who retains his place from Japan’s last outing, with veteran hooker Shota Horie and Tongan-born tighthead prop Asaeli Ai Valu replacing Atsushi Sakate and Jiwon Koo, respectively.

There’s also a new-look second row, as foreign-born locks Wimpie van der Walt and James Moore coming in for Luke Thompson and Uwe Helu.

Thompson has been demoted to the bench, and is in line to become the first player to represent Japan at four different World Cups should he make an appearance off the pine on Friday night.

Leitch is joined in the back row by Pieter Labuschagne and Kazuki Himeno, who replaces Amanaki Mafi at No. 8.

The only changes in the backline come at scrumhalf and on the left wing, as Yutaka Nagare and Lomano Lemeki are named in place of Keita Shigano and Kenki Fukuoka.

Friday’s clash is set to be a momentous occasion for not just the Brave Blossoms, but also their opponents, Russia, and the entire nation of Japan as they become the first Asian country to ever host a Rugby World Cup.

Heading into the fixture as firm favourites, it’s uncommon for Japan to be faced with such scrutiny as the rest of the rugby world watches on, but Joseph is under no illusions that his side can live up to expectations at Ajinomoto Stadium.

“Pressure is a big part of the job and I guess I’ve been in some pretty big-pressure situations: my mother died a month ago, it’s a big pressure for me being the only boy in the family,” the former All Black said.

“I’ve been to two World Cups and played in a World Cup final so I’m really looking forward to what’s coming and the players are as well.

“It’s going to be a big occasion, not just for our team but for the country, but you can’t really replicate what coming up for the players. The boys have got to enjoy the opportunity of playing some good rugby in front of their home crowd.”

Japan side to face Russia in Tokyo on September 20:

Keita Inagaki

Shota Horie

Asaeli Ai Valu

Wimpie van der Walt

James Moore

Michael Leitch (capt.)

Pieter Labuschagne

Kazuki Himeno

Yutaka Nagare

Yu Tamura

Lomano Lemeki

Ryoto Nakamura

Timothy Lafaele

Kotaro Matsushima

William Tupou

Atsushi Sakate

Isileli Nakajima

Jiwon Koo

Luke Thompson

Hendrik Tui

Fumiaki Tanaka

Rikiya Matsuda

Ryohei Yamanaka