International Rugby: Japan v New Zealand Preview

A rugby player fends off a tackle

New Zealand will be determined to hit the ground running when they kick off their end-of-year tour against Japan in Tokyo on Saturday.

Date: Saturday, November 3
Venue: Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo
Kick-off:  7:45am
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
Assistant Referees: Damon Murphy (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)

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With most of the All Blacks' first-choice players already in London, this Test against the Brave Blossoms sees the world champions fielding an under-strength matchday 23.

But, such is the depth in New Zealand rugby that several of those involved in this match would be Test players in most other countries.

Although New Zealand have plenty of players plying their trade in the land of the rising sun, this is unfamiliar territory for the All Blacks, who are playing just their second Test in Japan, and this will be only the fourth ever Test between these countries.

New Zealand's last encounter against Japan was also in Tokyo, in 2013, and on that occasion the world champions proved far too strong for their hosts and claimed an easy 54-6 victory.

Of their two previous encounters, the All Blacks also registered impressive victories by large winning margins at the Rugby World Cup - in Hamilton in 2011 (83-7) and Bloemfontein in 1995 (145-17).

However, the Brave Blossoms have made tremendous strides in recent years and under the guidance of their coach - former All Black Jamie Joseph - they have become a competitive unit and are one of the most improved sides at Test level.

During this year's June internationals, they beat Italy convincingly (34-17) in the first of a two-Test home series, before suffering a narrow loss (25-22) in the second Test in Kobe.

They followed that up with an easy 28-0 victory over Georgia in Japan and last weekend they gave a good account of themselves against a strong World XV before going down 31-28 in Osaka.

Although New Zealand have named an inexperienced matchday squad, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is not underestimating their opponents and said the men in black are preparing for a fast-paced game.

"We’re expecting Japan to play a high-tempo, hit-and-run game as opposed to having an arm wrestle," he revealed.

"We know their coaching stuff very well and have a lot of respect for them and no doubt they’ll have a trick or two up their sleeve. So we’ll need to be sharp of mind and bring our own physicality and intensity to the contest.

"We again look forward to playing in front of the Japanese fans, and on behalf of the entire All Blacks squad, want to thank the Japanese people for their hospitality and support. We look forward to seeing them next year."

Players to watch:

For Japan: As the Brave Blossoms' captain, Michael Leitch has a huge responsibility on his shoulders and he will be expected to lead from the front against the world's best team. With the All Blacks fielding an under-strength side, New Zealand-born Leitch will be expected to take the fight to their opponents as a ball carrier and he should also be at the forefront of his side's defensive efforts against an All Blacks side who have plenty of attacking threats in their ranks.

For New Zealand: All eyes will be on the All Blacks hooker, Dane Coles, who makes his return to the Test arena after a lengthy absence with a serious knee injury sustained against France in Paris last year. Prior to that, Coles also spent long periods on the sidelines due to concussion issues. When on song, the 2015 World Cup winner is arguably the world's best hooker with his superb skill-set and searing pace making him a potent attacking threat. However, it remains to be seen if he can replicate his form after such a long spell on the sidelines. Also keep an eye on run-on debutants, centre Matt Proctor and openside flanker Dalton Papalii, who will be hoping to justify the faith shown in them by the selectors.

Head-to-head: The battle between the two number eights will be an important one as both Japan's Hendrik Tui and Luke Whitelock of New Zealand will be hoping to get their respective teams over the advantage line with strong carries. Like his captain, Leitch, Tui was also born in New Zealand so there will be no lack of motivation from him to do well against the All Blacks. Meanwhile, as the All Blacks' latest Test captain, Whitelock will also be keen to impress in the leadership role and avoid a potential banana skin for the world champions.

Recent results:

2013: New Zealand won 54-6 in Tokyo
2011: New Zealand won 83-7 in Hamilton
1995: New Zealand won 145-17 in Bloemfontein

Although this is an inexperienced All Blacks side, they will still have too much firepower for their hosts. New Zealand to win by 30 points.

The teams:

Japan: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Jamie Henry, 13 Will Tupou, 12 Tim Lafaele, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Hendrik Tui, 7 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 6 Michael Leitch (c), 5 Samuela Anise, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Yusuki Niwai, 17 Masataka Mikami, 18 Asaeli Valu, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Vaka Nakajima, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Rikiya Matsuda 23 Ryoto Nakamura

New Zealand: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 8 Luke Whitelock (c), 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Jackson Hemopo, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ofa Tuungafasi
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dillon Hunt, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Mitch Drummond, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 George Bridge

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