Michael Leitch returns for Japan’s World Cup clash with Samoa
Host nation retain captain Pieter Labuschagne as they look to make it three wins out of three against the Pacific islanders
Toyota City — Japan coach Jamie Joseph on Thursday made three changes to the starting side that stunned Ireland for this weekend’s Rugby World Cup pool A clash with Samoa.
The hosts, who toppled the Irish last week, have recalled talismanic leader Michael Leitch as they look to make it three wins out of three against the Pacific islanders on Saturday in Toyota.
Despite Leitch’s return, openside flanker Pieter Labuschagne retains the captaincy after an impressive first run-out as skipper against Ireland.
“Lappies has kept it — we want to minimise Michael’s responsibilities so he can focus on his own game,” explained Joseph, referring to Labuschagne.
“It worked well last week and we want to continue that. Lappies has done a very good job leading the team on the field, Michael is still our team captain.”
Atsushi Sakate comes in as starting hooker for the Brave Blossoms and Wimpie van der Walt at lock, while veteran Luke Thompson has been left out of the match 23.
Shota Horie drops to the bench after his man of the match display against Ireland when Japan produced the shock of the tournament by winning 19-12.
Winger Kenki Fukuoka, who came on to score Japan’s only try of the match in Shizuoka, is again named among Japan’s replacements.
Leitch, who inspired the jaw-dropping 34-32 upset of SA at the 2015 World Cup that put Japanese rugby on the map, returns at blindside flanker to win his 66th cap in red and white.
“Lappies became the captain, he’s closer to the ref [at the scrum] and I’m the farthest,” said Leitch. “He’s the game captain and I’m the team captain — I think us two have done this week’s preparation pretty well.”
Yu Tamura, whose silky playmaking skills and calm kicking paced Japan against Ireland, will make his 61st appearance for his country. Japan won three matches four years ago but failed to reach the knockout stage.
The Pacific Nations champions began the World Cup with a 30-10 win over Russia. Another victory over Samoa would put them in a strong position to reach the quarterfinals for the first time before facing Scotland in their final pool A game.
Samoa, who reached the last eight in 1991 and 1995, opened with a 34-9 victory over Russia before being thrashed 34-0 by Scotland.
“They lost their game against Scotland and they’ll be hurting,” said Joseph. “But those are the sorts of things that bring teams together, and so we’re expecting a really tough game.”
Japan: Ryohei Nakayama; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Lomano Lemeki; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Kazuki Himeno, Pieter Labuschagne (capt), Michael Leitch, James Moore, Wimpie van der Walt; Koo Ji-won, Atsushi Sakate, Keita Inagaki. Replacements: Shota Horie, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Uwe Helu, Hendrik Tui, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka.