Veteran Michael Leitch will become Japan’s most capped Rugby World Cup player when he runs onto the pitch at Stade de Nice for his 15th tournament match on Sunday.
He is one of 13 survivors from the Japan side that lost 52-13 against England at Twickenham last November – a match Jamie Joseph’s side would rather forget as the home side ran in seven tries.
The RWC 2019 hosts will need him to be at his obdurate best again. He was superb in defence against Chile, completing 15 of his 16 tackle attempts, making one breakdown steal from four defensive ruck arrivals, forcing one tackle turnover, and making one lineout steal.
Steve Borthwick, meanwhile, has made three changes to England’s starting XV after their pragmatism-first win over Argentina last weekend. Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler come into the front row, while Lewis Ludlam slots in at eight.
FIXTURE: England v Japan
GROUND: Stade de Nice (35,983)
KICK-OFF: 21:00 local time (GMT+2)
The Brave Blossoms have yet to win a match against England – and this will be their ninth attempt. The first game between the two sides was back in September 1971, when Fran Cotton, Roger Uttley, Nigel Starmer-Smith and company beat their hosts 27-19 in Hanazono in an uncapped match.
As recently as November 2018, Japan gave England an almighty scare. They led 15-10 at half-time and were still very much in the match up to the 72nd minute, when England finally pulled away.
The only previous meeting between the two teams in Rugby World Cups was in the inaugural tournament in 1987, when a Mike Harrison hat-trick helped England to a comprehensive 60-7 victory in Sydney.
But Japan have plenty of more positive historic Rugby World Cup outings to call on. As well as the oft-mentioned ‘Miracle in Brighton’, there’s also their victory over Ireland four years ago.
KEY TALKING POINT
It’s almost impossible to talk about England right now without mentioning discipline. Two players are suspended heading into the second game of Rugby World Cup 2023, with Tom Curry receiving the first red card of the tournament in the win over Argentina last weekend, while a third – Billy Vunipola – returns to the bench after a ban.
Maro Itoje v Jack Cornelsen. England’s second-row superstar Itoje looked to be – had to be – playing at the very top of his game against Argentina last weekend. He will face a different challenge in Nice against Cornelsen, who swapped four for eight against Chile when captain Kazuki Himeno withdrew with a calf injury – and quietly put in one of the performances of the match. He made 19 tackles, and stole three lineouts and, but for Amato Fakatava’s two tries and 17 tackles, would have been a contender for Mastercard Player of the Match.
Jonny Wilkinson kicked 14 drop goals in four Rugby World Cups – more than twice as many as nearest rival, Springbok Jannie de Beer, whose five in a match is a record. Wilkinson is also comfortably the highest points scorer in Rugby World Cup history with 277 points across his four tournaments.
Nika Amashukeli (Georgia). The youngest referee at this tournament – and the second-youngest in its history – became the first Georgian ever to referee a Rugby World Cup match when he took charge of Ireland v Romania in Toulouse last week.
ENGLAND Freddie Steward; Jonny May, Joe Marchant, Manu Tuilagi, Elliot Daly; George Ford, Alex Mitchell; Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum; Courtney Lawes (captain), Ben Earl, Lewis Ludlam
Replacements: Theo Dan, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, George Martin, Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Marcus Smith, Ollie Lawrence
JAPAN Semisi Masirewa; Kotaro Matsushima, Tomoki Osada, Ryoto Nakamura, Jone Naikabula; Rikiya Matsuda, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Jiwon Gu; Jack Cornelsen, Amato Fakatava; Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno (captain)
Replacements: Atsushi Sakate, Craig Millar, Asaeli Ai Valu, Warner Dearns, Kanji Shimokawa, Naoto Saito, Dylan Riley, Lomano Lemeki