Japan coach John Kirwan has likened Wednesday’s clash with Tonga to a World Cup Final for his team, it’s a game they desperately want to win against opposition they consider beatable - and for good reason too.
Japan have won the last five contest between the two teams, with the results spanning across four years. The last clash between the two nations was as recent as July and it was a humdinger ending in a one-point victory for the Cherry Blossoms.
The men from Asia are looking to claim their first World Cup win since beating Zimbabwe in 1991 and signs suggest that this is the moment they’ve long been waiting for.
While Kirwan conceded defeat to New Zealand by selecting a second-string team, his outlook on the Tonga game couldn’t be more different.
There are only two changes to the team that did duty in Japan’s opening clash against France with the injured duo of Ryukoliniasi Holani and Koji Taira missing out. Alisi Tupuailai comes in for Taira at outside centre while skipper Takashi Kikutani moves from flank to number eight to accommodate the inclusion of Itaru Taniguchi on the blindside.
It’s not only the personnel that is different, though, with the Cherry Blossoms adopting a hard-hitting approach that perhaps isn’t normally associated with them.
“We watched them on film, but they play a real simple game. We’ve figured out their strengths as well as their weaknesses,” Taniguchi said of the Tongans.
“We’re not just going to try to stop them, we’re going to hit back. My guess is that they think Japanese players will sit there and take it, so imagine how surprised they might be if we took it right to them.”
Tonga coach Isitolo Maka certainly isn’t underestimating the Japanese.
“I was very impressed with the way they played France,” said Maka.
“I knew that was the team they would play against us. I knew they would play their second team against the All Blacks. So you can’t read much into the All Blacks game.”
While Kirwan has rung the change in a fairly methodical manner, the Tongan camp looks a little less settled.
Only Taniela Moa, Kurt Morath and centre Siale Piutau will have played all three games of the tournament. But while that is not too much of concern what is more worrying is that Maka hasn’t even been able to keep Moa and Morath in one position with Moa switching back between scrum-half and fly-half and Morath making use of the number ten and fifteen jerseys.
Tonga will be without captain Finau Maka for the clash, with the flanker ruled out by a rib injury. Hooker Aleki Lutui takes over the captaincy and he is joined in the front row by Taufa’ao Filise and Soane Tonga’uiha, with the trio reestablishing the partnership forged against New Zealand.
Lock Paino Hehea and loose forwards Sione Kalamafoni and Viliami Ma’afu come into the pack while full-back Vungakoto Lilo and winger Sukanaivalu Hufanga join the back-line.
Needless to say, the game is a big one for Tonga. The men in red have already dropped three places in the IRB rankings after their poor start to the competition and are in danger of losing much of the credibility they took from their opening game.
After a strong second-half showing against the All Blacks, there is no doubt the Ikale Tahi will feel they let themselves down against Canada; now is the time to prove that was just a blip rather than a downward curve.
2011: Japan won 28-27 in Suva
2001: Japan won 26-23 in Apia
2009: Japan won 21-19 in Lautoka
2008: Japan won 35-13 in Sendai
2007: Japan won 20-17 in Coffs Harbour
Players to watch:
For Tonga: Outside centre Siale Piutau grabbed a brace against Canada and generally looked dangerous on defence. Tonga will be looking for him to put in some barnstorming runs through the middle of the Japanese defence.
For Japan: Despite having limited opportunities against New Zealand, Hirotoki Onozawa looked a lively and willing runner. With better ball set to be on offer against Tonga, the experienced winger will have a chance to show how dangerous he can be.
Head-to-head: Fly-halves James Alridge and Kurt Morath are both key figures for their teams so their battle could be crucial in deciding the outcome of the game. The duo are both goal kickers, and in a game that could be tight their performance from the kicking tee could be a defining moment.
Predication: History suggests there are never runaway victors in this contest but with Brave Blossoms appearing the team to have more momentum heading into the clash, Japan should take it by seven!
Tonga: 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Alipate Fatafehi, 11 Sukanaivalu Hufanga, 10 Kurt Morath, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Viliami Ma’afu, 7 Sione Vaiomo’unga, 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Paino Hehea, 4 Tukulua Lokotui, 3 Taufa’ao Filise, 2 Aleki Lutui (captain), 1 Soane Tonga’uiha.
Replacements: 16 Aloisio Ma’asi, 17 Alisona Taumalolo, 18 Halani Aulika, 19 Joseph Tu’ineau, 20 Samiu Vahafolau, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Viliame Iongi.
Japan: 15 Shaun Webb, 14 Kosuke Endo, 13 Alisi Tupuailai, 12 Ryan Nicholas, 11 Hirotoki Onozawa, 10 James Arlidge, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Takashi Kikutani (c), 7 Michael Leitch, 6 Itaru Taniguchi, 5 Toshizumi Kitagawa, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Kensuke Hatakeyama, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Hisateru Hirashima.
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Aoki, 17 Nozomu Fujita, 18 Hitoshi Ono, 19 Sione Talikavili Vatuvei, 20 Atsushi Hiwasa, 21 Takehisa Usuzuki, 22 Murray Williams.
Date: Wednesday, September 21
Venue: Northland Events Centre, Whangarei
Kick-off: 19:30 (07:30 GMT)
Weather: Maximum 19° C, minimum 9°C, dry, westerly breezes
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Stuart Terheege (England)
Television match official: Giulio De Santis (Italy)