Japan v France: Five storylines to follow including Charles Ollivon’s return and a chance to recapture World Cup excitement

Lawrence Nolan

Ahead of the upcoming two-Test series between Japan and France, we pick out five storylines to follow over the next month.

Japan have regressed somewhat since they hosted their global showpiece and stunned Ireland three years ago, despite the burgeoning strength of their domestic league. Covid hit them at precisely the wrong moment – well, more wrong than even some others – while the actual nationality of their squad becomes ever-more dubious, with tries in the recent win over Uruguay scored by Dylan Riley, Ben Gunter and Gerhard van den Heever.

Their July opposition, meanwhile, have moved sharply in the opposite direction since 2019’s disappointing exit to Wales and are now firmly entrenched in conversations about favourites for the next World Cup, which they are hosting.

Planet Rugby duly takes a look at five talking points ahead of the intriguing series.

A chance for France to further show their depth

Make no mistake, it was a shadow France team, along with George Kruis, which laid waste to England’s hopefuls at Twickenham a week and a half ago. The French Barbarians are on tour in the USA, having a whale of a time, while the actual first-choice French team is about to be unleashed on Japan. But the tour is also notable for the number of front-line players being given a summer off and there will be a chance to gauge just how well another – yet another – crop of international-class youngsters is coming on. Keep your eyes on Antoine Hastoy, Baptiste Couilloud, Yoann Tanga and Dany Priso, for example, most of whom would give any international in their position a run for their money, yet all of whom could be viably assessed as fourth-choice in their positions in the French squad.

Japan need improvements after dismal 2021

Covid certainly wrecked the momentum Japan had created, while many possible fans have had their post-World Cup enthusiasm dampened by interminable lockdowns and restrictions but that’s only a part-excuse for the backwards steps taken by the team since their 2019 zenith. There is more than a nagging suspicion that the local league has a few too many imports and too few up-and-coming locals to keep the heart of the team beating. But a two-Test mauling of Uruguay in June augurs better for this series; a good showing would continue some long-needed positive momentum.

The return of Charles Ollivon to the back-row

And, as it happens, the captaincy. Nobody batted an eyelid when Ollivon was given the armband on his return to the squad after almost a season off with a horrible knee injury. But of all the positions currently being furiously-fought over in this French team, back-row competition is the fiercest. Many are the long-serving international captains who have been retained in a squad despite not being the best player in their position, but with so many leaders in the French team, expect Ollivon to have a little extra to prove on his return.

Japan tour hopefully a sign of things to come

England would have toured in 2020, alas the pandemic put that to bed. And last year was a null too, not least because of the Lions tour as well. If Japan’s squad has regressed since the World Cup, it is hard to look past the pandemic as the principal reason. Finally they welcome one of the big European teams on a bona fide July series; hopefully those fans whose imagination was so caught by the 2019 showpiece will remember how much fun it was and start creating atmospheres and tours worth the while for Europe’s major players to go on.

Familiar names in unfamiliar colours and places

Remember Gerhard van den Heever? He was the one who inherited Bryan Habana’s number eleven jersey at the Bulls, before he headed down to join the Stormers, then went to Munster, then went… you get the picture. Touted as a potential world great, but disappeared slowly from view amid a haze of injuries and ill-considered moves. But he must be doing something right, for at the age of 33 he is tearing it up for Japan on the left wing. He now faces stiffer opposition in the likes of Matthis Lebel and Yoram Moefana though.

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