Preview: New Zealand v Japan

Date published: September 16 2011

When this fixture was announced it was impossible to not immediately think of New Zealand's 145-17 demolition of Japan in 1995.

When this fixture was announced it was impossible to not immediately think of New Zealand's 145-17 demolition of Japan in the 1995 World Cup.

Indeed, the Bloemfontein clash is the only time the two sides have met. But this is not 1995 and there will be no 100 plus victory margin.

For Japan, Friday's clash provides the perfect opportunity to show the rugby world how they have progressed over the last sixteen years.

Coach John Kirwan admits that the result is not the most important aspect of the game for his men.

“All the guys want to give it their best shot. We want to defend with our hearts on our sleeves and we want to have the ability to hang onto the ball and play some good football,” said the Kiwi legend.

“The result doesn't matter for us tomorrow night – and it didn't matter last week as well. It's about playing our style of rugby and then if we can get into a situation to win the football game, then we should take it.”

If the game against France is anything to go by, the Cherry Blossoms have the ability to play enterprising rugby backed by good defence. However, with ten changes made to the team that troubled France it remains to be seen whether they can do it again.

Winger Hirotoki Onozawa, lock Toshizumi Kitagawa, back rowers Michael Leitch and Takashi Kikutani and center Koji Taira are the only survivors from Friday's clash. Crucially, fly-half James Arlidge, who scored all of Japan's points against France, is replaced by Murray Williams.

Kirwan is not the only man to have rung the changes, with Graham Henry making eight personnel and two positional switches to the team that beat Tonga in the tournament opener.

While Henry originally named many of his big guns in the starting XV, skipper Richie McCaw, playmaker Daniel Carter and full-back Mils Muliaina have all pulled out since the original team announcement. None of the trio appear to be carrying knocks that are cause for too much concern, so in a sense – especially in the case of McCaw and Carter – a bit more rest might not be the worst idea.

Carter's withdrawal hands Colin Slade another opportunity to show his worth and it's Slade who perhaps has more to prove than any of his team-mates; an assured performance in Hamilton will go a long way to easing concerns about the All Blacks lack of depth at fly-half and building the 23-year-old's confidence.

Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu are reunited in the midfield and it appears that despite the thrills provided by Sonny Bill Williams, the pair will remain Henry's first choice pairing. Both players will, however, be wary of taking their foot off the gas as the Japan clash may provide the former Hurricanes duo a chance to cement their 'first-choice' status.

Dropped from the matchday 22 initially, Isaia Toeava will certainly feel he's playing for a place in later rounds. The utility back was solid against Tonga but with those around him shining, it appears that solid rather than spectacular is all that is required to quickly fall down the pecking order.

The key for the All Blacks will be to remain clinical. While the result seems without doubt, the New Zealanders can't afford to become sloppy. Momentum is critical and they'll want to head into their crucial clash with France on a high.

However, this shouldn't be a problem for the Kiwis; with competition for places so tight, individually they can't afford to take their foot off the gas like the French did against Japan.

Players to watch:

For New Zealand: One position where Henry doesn't seem to have quite settled on his first choice is scrum-half. Andy Ellis, Piri Weepu and Jimmy Cowan have all had a run in the number nine jersey in recent times and it's Ellis who has gotten the nod this time around. One imagines that Henry would have been hoping to have paired Ellis with his Crusaders team-mate, Carter, but even with a slight blip in the plan, a strong showing from Ellis could springboard him into the starting XV against France.

For Japan: This year has been one to remember for scrum-half Atsushi Hiwasa having made his international debut, been named Japanese Top League's Rookie of the Year and handed the Asian 5 Nations Emerging Player award. Added to that, Hiwasa kept Wallaby legend George Gregan on the bench at his club Suntory Sungoliath. John Kirwan has high hopes for the 24-year-old and Hiwasa will be looking to make an impact in his first World Cup start.

Head-to-head: Colin Slade couldn't make the most of his chance when handed the number ten jersey against South Africa in the Tri-Nations and the Highlanders fly-half will need to prove against Japan that he has what it takes to step up to the plate when required. Likewise, his opposite number Murray Williams comes into the side after a superb showing from James Arlidge against Japan. Arlidge hasn't always had it his own way in terms of holding on to the number ten shirt and Williams will be looking to keep the pressure on by matching Slade in this duel.

Previous results:
1995: New Zealand won 145-17 in Bloemfontein

Prediction:There won't be a repeat of the 1995 mauling but the All Blacks will still hand out a hiding – the gulf in class is just too great. New Zealand by 50!

The teams:

New Zealand: 15 Isaia Toeava, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Richard Kahui, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Adam Thomson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 John Afoa, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Anthony Boric, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Piri Weepu, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.

Japan: 15 Taihei Ueda, 14 Takahisa Usuzuki, 13 Koji Taira, 12 Yuta Imamura, 11 Hirotoki Onozawa, 10 Murray Williams, 9 Atsushi Hiwasa, 8 Takashi Kikutani (c), 7 Michael Leitch, 6 Itaru Taniguchi, 5 Toshizumi Kitagawa, 4 Hithoshi Ono, 3 Nozomu Fujita, 2 Yusuke Aoki, 1 Naoki Kawamata
Replacements: 16 Hiroki Yuhara, 17 Kensuke Hatakeyama, 18 Yuji Kitagawa, 19 Sione Talikavili Vatuvei, 20 Tomoki Yoshida, 21 Shaun Webb, 22 Alisi Tupuailai.

Date: Friday, Spetember 16
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 20:00 (8:00 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Jérôme Garces (France)
Television match official: Giulio De Santis (Italy)

By Julia Harris