Autumn Nations Series preview: All Blacks to get the better of spirited Japan in Tokyo

David Skippers
Japan v New Zealand preview image 2022.jpg

There should be plenty of thrilling action on display when the All Blacks and Japan go head-to-head in their Autumn Nations Series international in Tokyo on Saturday.

Although the men in black will head into this fixture as favourites, things have not gone according to script for them during the past 12 months as they have already lost four out of nine Tests played in 2022, and their preparations for this Autumn Nations Series campaign – and especially this Test – have been rocked by several withdrawals before their departure from New Zealand.

Despite that spanner in the works, it presents opportunities to other players in head coach Ian Foster‘s squad and former rugby league star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and his Blues team-mate Stephen Perofeta will be keen to shine as both are set to make their first starts at Test level.

Despite their disruptive preparations for this contest, the All Blacks are still able to field a strong run-on side with excitement machines like Caleb Clarke, Sevu Reece and Richie Mo’unga set to keep the crowd entertained, while experienced heads like skipper Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Dane Coles will be expected to provide direction in what could be a tricky assignment for the three-time world champions.

Although Japan will head into this encounter as overwhelming underdogs, they should not be underestimated as they are one of the most improved teams in the international arena in recent years.

Former All Black back-row Jamie Joseph has coached the Brave Blossoms since 2016 and under his guidance they are renowned for punching above their weight at Test level. Since starting his coaching reign they have generally given a good account of themselves against more fancied countries.

After reaching the quarter-finals at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan have continued on their upward trajectory and have been regulars in the top 10 of World Rugby’s Test rankings.

Despite suffering a 2-0 series defeat to France in July, Japan were competitive in both those Tests and Joseph’s troops recently played in a three-game series as a Japan XV against Australia ‘A’, which they lost 2-1.

They finished that series on a high with a memorable win which boosted their confidence ahead of this showdown with New Zealand.

Last time they met

These countries faced off during an end-of-year international at the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo in 2018 and, like all three previous encounters between them, New Zealand had too much firepower for the Brave Blossoms and cruised to a 69-31 victory. A 10-try showing from the All Blacks saw Coles, Mo’unga, Ngani Laumape (3), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, George Bridge (2), Waisake Naholo and Matt Proctor dot down, while fly-half Mo’unga also kicked 17 points off the kicking tee, with Jordie Barrett succeeding with the remaining conversion. For the Brave Blossoms, Samuela Anise, Hendrik Tui, Timothy Lafaele (2) and Jamie Henry the whitewash while Yu Tamura added three conversions.

What they said

After finishing on a high against Australia ‘A’, Japan head coach Joseph knows that they will still have to improve against a side of New Zealand’s calibre.

“Our focus has been on us as a team and what we can do to create pressure and opportunities for ourselves,” he said. “The All Blacks like to control the game through the set-piece, so we’ve done a lot of work with our scrum and lineout knowing that we’re playing a very big and experienced pack that will try and dominate us up front.

“We have to manage that and then, when we can create quality ball for our backs, as we showed against Australia A, we can score some quality tries as well.”

All Blacks defence guru Scott McLeod was part of the Highlanders’ backroom staff with Joseph and Japan’s attack coach Tony Brown a few years ago and knows what to expect from the men in red and white.

“They’ve got a high skill level and they put the ball into space really well very quickly, and if they get their space with their skill set, they can be very dangerous,” McLeod said.

“They’ve got some power players and fast players and the other balance from that which is familiar is that if they don’t get what they want then they are very happy to kick the ball and back their defence and then pressure and try to get turnovers.”

Players to watch

One of the up-and-coming talents in Japanese rugby is explosive number eight Tevita Tatafu, who has come on in leaps and bounds since making his Test debut against South Korea in the 2016 Asia Rugby Championship. Blessed with plenty of speed and great ball carrying ability, the Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath star can be a real handful once he builds up a head of steam and he will be determined to do just that against the All Blacks.

Also keep an eye on Tatafu’s club-mate, scrum-half Yutaka Nagare, and his half-back partner Takuya Yamasawa, who plies his trade with Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan’s Rugby League One competition. Nagare is an experienced campaigner, while Yamasawa is very inexperienced but both will be crucial for the home side. Although it will depend largely on Japan’s backs receiving quality ball from their forwards, Nagare will be expected to provide Yamasawa with good front-foot ball from the base, while the young pivot will be hoping to make his mark with his playmaking skills.

There’s plenty of hype and excitement amongst All Blacks supporters around the inclusion of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Stephen Perofeta, who were two of the Blues’ stars during their run to the Super Rugby Pacific final, which they lost to the Crusaders. Tuivasa-Sheck, whose only previous appearances at Test level were 10-minute cameos against Ireland and Australia, presents a point of difference to other contenders for the All Blacks’ inside centre position. His quick feet and offloading ability is sure to put his team on the front foot, although there are concerns about his kicking and tactical play – facets which are crucial for any number 12 in the Test arena.

Meanwhile, Perofeta has won only one Test cap – during which he played for about a minute against Argentina – and, like Tuivasa-Sheck, he will determined to show Foster that he belongs at this level. The 25-year-old has impressed at fly-half and full-back for the Blues which earned him a Test call-up and, after kicking his heels as a squad member for the vast majority of New Zealand’s 2022 Test campaign, he gets his chance to shine in the number 15 jersey this weekend. A brilliant counter-attacker, Perofeta will be hoping to give the All Blacks momentum with strong runs from the back.

Another player who will be keen to impress is Shannon Frizell, who gets a chance to cement his place in the run-on side after missing the latter stages of the Rugby Championship due to a rib injury. That setback came at the wrong time for the 28-year-old as he missed the Tests against Australia but he impressed on the blindside flank up to then and will be eager to continue where he left off before being sidelined.

Main head-to-head

While New Zealand have a definite edge in most departments, the battle at the breakdown will be evenly contested with the chief protagonists being All Blacks skipper Sam Cane and Japan’s veteran back-row Michael Leitch. After a slow start to the international campaign, which coincided with some defeats for the All Blacks, Cane regained his best form during the latter stages of the Rugby Championship and it was not surprising that those fine performances helped his team to lift the title yet again this year.

When on song, the 30-year-old’s groundwork is amongst the best in the business, while he is also adept as a ball carrier and on defence, and he will be determined to show that he still has what it takes to compete at the highest level. After missing the All Blacks’ last Rugby Championship encounter against the Wallabies at Eden Park in Auckland due to concussion, Cane will have to hit the ground running against Leitch, who, despite his advancing years, is still a classy back-row. Leitch might be 34 but he remains one of the first names on Japan’s teamsheet. The New Zealand-born tearaway is sure to make a nuisance of himself in the breakdown battle, while his experience will also be crucial to the Japanese cause.

Prediction

Although the All Blacks are expected to cruise to a comfortable victory, don’t be surprised if the Brave Blossoms do justice to their name and come to the fore with a spirited performance. The All Blacks will win but it is unlikely to be as comfortable as previous encounters against Japan. New Zealand to win by 22 points.

Previous results

2018: New Zealand won 69-31 in Tokyo
2013: New Zealand won 54-6 in Tokyo
2011: New Zealand won 83-7 in Hamilton
1995: New Zealand won 145-17 in Bloemfontein

The teams

Japan: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Dylan Riley, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Siosaia Fifita, 10 Takuya Yamasawa, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Tevita Tatafu, 7 Kazuki Himeno, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Jack Cornelsen, 4 Warner Dearns, 3 Jiwon Gu, 2 Atsushi Sakate (c), 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Takeshi Hino, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Shuhei Takeuchi, 19 Kanji Shimokawa, 20 Faulua Makisi, 21 Naoto Saito, 22 Seungsin Lee, 23 Gerhard van den Heever

New Zealand: 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Tupou Vaa’i, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Dane Coles, 1 George Bower
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Dalton Papali’i, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 David Havili, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown

Date: Saturday, October 29
Venue: Japan National Stadium, Tokyo
Kick-off: 14:50 local (06:50 BST, 05:50 GMT)
Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
Assistant Referees: Jordan Way (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

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