The Brave Blossoms have returned home to Tokyo where they host Italy in an effort to win their 10th consecutive match, a record for the rising nation. Most impressively it’s been 10 different teams who have fallen in succession, most recently both the US Eagles and Canada on home soil. Eddie Jones has benefited from the addition of several specialist coaches, Steve Borthwick and Marc Dal Maso among others, and also brought consistency to the side which has in the past struggled with a lack of continuity in selection. Though only a handful of the side are likely to still be contention for their hosting of the 2019 World Cup, it’s clear that constructing a winning mentality in the side has been a priority.
Beating the Azzurri would be another feather in the cap, and a first for Japan. Their last meeting, in Cesena, was their closest with Italy edging it by 7 points. Roughly half of each side that took part in that match will play again on Saturday, though they might find the game played at a noticeably higher tempo. It’s that speed which should worry Jacques Brunel, as Italy have looked tired on their Pacific tour, suffering the effects of a long season.
Despite the attrition Brunel has retained the nearly the same forward pack that were beaten by the Samoans, with the sole change seeing Marco Bortolami recalled to the second row to win his record 107th cap. On the flank, Mauro Bergamasco at last joins the century club in his 16th year of international rugby, an astonishing achievement given the reckless physicality that has been a staple of his game. Treviso second row Marco Fuser makes his first appearance of the tour on the reserves bench.
Three changes are made in the backline, with one positional switch. Andrea Masi moves inside one position to partner Michele Campagnaro for the first time in the midfield, and out wide Leonardo Sarto returns at the expense of Angelo Esposito. The merry-go-round continues at flyhalf as Luciano Orquera swaps numbers with Tommaso Allan. While Allan has yet to stake permanent claim to the shirt, Italian fans are probably hoping that Brunel gives the youngster a bit more game time with the World Cup on the horizon and few, if any, alternatives on offer.
Japan field the exact same 23 that beat the Eagles in Los Angeles. Jones appears to have settled on his first choice side, with a couple injury exemptions, and has kept the same squad together for their eight tests this year. As a result the team has looked well oiled, particularly at the set piece, though unforced errors and missed tackles are still an issue. Given that the Azzurri struggled in the scrum against Samoa, it’s safe to say that those troubles will continue against a relatively svelte but technically excellent Brave Blossoms pack.
Expect the exhausted Italians to keep things tight in the first half, but fatigue to take its toll in the second, with the pace of the Japanese phase play, led by Fumiaki Tanaka, too much to handle. The Brave Blossoms at last get their prize, a second tier 1 scalp to add to their win against Wales a year ago. Japan to win by 10.
JAPAN vs ITALY
Saturday, June 21, 05:00 GMT, Tokyo
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SARU)
Assistants: Garratt Williamson (NZRU) & Brendon Pickerill (NZRU)
TMO: Peter Marshall (ARU)