Japan face defending Pacific Nations Cup champions Samoa in the tournament's opening fixture in Tokyo on Saturday.
Japan's Brave Blossoms go into their Pacific Nations Cup opener on Saturday determined to beat defending champions Samoa in front of a home crowd and show that their World Cup preparations are on track.
While Japan earned a 31-23 victory over Samoa in last year's event, it was the Pacific islanders who won the four-team tournament, beating Tonga and Fiji on their way to collecting the trophy for the first time.
In the other fixture on the opening day, Fiji face Tonga in Lautoka, with the remaining games to be held on July 9 and 13.
This year the tournament was due to be hosted by Japan, but Saturday's match in Tokyo is the only one that will be played in the country after the event was moved to the Fijian towns of Lautoka and Suva following Japan's earthquake-and-tsunami disaster in March.
It leaves the runaway Asian Five Nations champions desperate to deliver a good performance in front of a partisan crowd, but coach John Kirwan is under no illusions about the test ahead with the World Cup starting in September.
Kirwan believes the Asian champions need more attacking punch to build on last year's third-place finish in the Pacific Nations Cup, their best result in the tournament so far.
And improvements are even more vital ahead of the World Cup in New Zealand, where Japan will line up against Tonga – as well as New Zealand, France and Canada – in a tough Pool A. Fiji and Samoa are both in Pool D.
“We need to work really hard to get some results at the PNC,” he said.
“Samoa, Tonga, Fiji have all reinforced their sides with European (based) players so it's going to be a very difficult tournament for us.
“We're playing teams above us in the rankings, physical matches and it's really helped us. Last year we had two wins against Samoa and Tonga and our whole life revolved around PNC. We wanted to win it and we wanted to perform in it.
“This year I need to be a little careful just to keep my eye on the World Cup, so I need to take a few risks and play some people who need to play to see if they can take that step up.”
The former All Black has set Japan an ambitious goal of winning at least two matches at the World Cup, a tournament at which they have won only once in six previous visits.
To achieve the target he has reconfigured Japan's style, freeing the side's halfbacks to join the attack, and introduced new defensive patterns to tighten up against rugby's leading nations.
Samoa are taking a team of 25 overseas-based players to the Pacific Nations Cup, with just three of the 28-man squad plying their trade on the island.
The foreign-based players are led by Manawatu's Johnny Leota, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu of Gloucester, George Pisi, Ti'i Paulo and Tasesa Lavea of Clermont, former London Irish centre Seilala Mapusua of Japan's Kubota Spears.
Also in the Samoan squad are Hurricanes prop Anthony Perenise, Chiefs lock Taiasina Tuifua, and former Sale Sharks full-back Paul Williams.
“The Japanese are speedy and they are good at defence. It will be good preparation looking forward to the World Cup,” said Samoa captain Mapusua.
Meanwhile, Fiji and Tonga face off in the first of the three matches the two island teams play before the Rugby World Cup as they are also set to play build-up tests in August.
At Churchill Park on Saturday, Tonga will be looking for a repeat of the 2007 result when the Friendly Islanders beat the Flying Fijians 21-15 at the same venue.
The two nations also produced arguably the most exciting game of the competition to date last year in Samoa, when Fiji came back from 31-0 down to win 41-38.
In the history of the competition, Tonga leads their head-to-head with three wins to Fiji's two, but the talking point for Fiji rugby is the return of all time top point-scorer Nicky Little.
Little has not played any international rugby since breaking his leg in Fiji's outstanding win against Wales at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but his steady game could still be key to Fijian success.
Backing up from a tough season abroad are the likes of Albert Vulivuli, Gabriel Lovobalavu and young Clermont full-back Kini Murimuivalu, while coach Sam Domoni has made it clear he expects better from his side.
“Tonga will be physical and we cannot afford what we did last year. We have to be on our toes from the start,” said Domoni.
Like the Fijians, Tonga will also be out to win a first ever PNC title and their preparations began at the Churchill Cup in England earlier this month, where they lost in the Plate final to Italy A, 27-18.
The likes of brothers Kurt and Daniel Morath will be key to Tongan success, along with Alipate Fatafehi, Semisi Telefoni, Kisi Pulu, Viliami Ma'afu and Taufa'ao Filise.
Tonga mentor and former All Black Isitolo Maka says his side is at full strength and looking forward to the battle.