Japan v England preview: Steve Borthwick’s charges to ‘embarrass’ Eddie Jones in Tokyo thrashing

Colin Newboult
Japan's Michael Leitch and England's Marcus Smith alongside coaches Steve Borthwick and Eddie Jones.

Japan's Michael Leitch and England's Marcus Smith alongside coaches Steve Borthwick and Eddie Jones.

The main course is still to come for England but this encounter serves as a very enticing appetiser, given the occasion and, of course, the person now in charge of Japan.

For the first time, the Red Rose will take on the Brave Blossoms on Japanese soil having previously faced them either at Twickenham or at the Rugby World Cup.

Their last meeting came at the 2023 global tournament where the Englishmen eased to a 34-12 victory on their way to the semi-finals, but plenty has changed since them, especially for the hosts.

Out went Jamie Joseph, who took them to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2019, and in came Eddie Jones, returning to the team he spent almost four years at between 2012 and 2015.

It reunites England and Jones – the man who guided them to the World Cup final in Japan – as well as Steve Borthwick and his former head coach.

Borthwick was the forwards guru for the first five years of the Australian’s tenure and was the person that replaced him when the 64-year-old was fired by the RFU in December 2022.

Since then, the ex-Leicester Tigers head honcho has steadily built the Red Rose into a side that now looks capable of challenging the world’s elite, but the next month will provide a much better indicator as to where they currently stand.

They should begin their tour with a comfortable win, especially considering the amount of rookies in Japan’s 23-man squad, and if they do, it will set them up nicely for the task of facing the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Although it is Jones who is attempting to embarrass Borthwick and England, it should actually be the other way round as the Australian’s odd selection calls could come back to bite the Japanese.

Where the game will be won

Whenever Japan have been successful in the past, they have had a front five which has been able to compete. It was key to their victory over South Africa in 2015 and their run to the quarter-finals four years later, but they have been a distinct second-best in the power game since then.

Jones has perhaps realised that and, as a result, two of their four newbies come in the front-row. They have a daunting task, however, facing England’s centurion Dan Cole and captain Jamie George, while youngster Bevan Rodd has enjoyed a fine end to the season in the Premiership.

Quite simply, they have to hold their own in the set-piece and on the gain line, where the Red Rose will keep on sending their power runners, otherwise the hosts will have no chance. The Brave Blossoms always have the backline and skills to set the game alight if they secure the necessary front foot ball, but getting that against England will be the challenge, and we don’t hold out much hope this weekend.

Last time they met

What they said

New Japan boss Jones is confident that they will give England a good game, despite the difference in experience between the two squads.

“We’re really looking forward to this game,” he said.

“We know England are a strong side, they were top four at the World Cup and have got their traditional strengths of set-piece, kicking and kick chase. And they’ve developed line speed. What better start is there to see where we’re at?

“Whatever we do in this game, we are going to take England right to the last moment. I’ve got a really good feeling in my bones that we’re going to take them right to the last moment.

“If we’re good we’ll win the game. If we’re not good enough, we’ll work out what we’ve got to do to get better. It’s pretty simple.”

Meanwhile, England head coach Borthwick revealed why he went early with his team announcement and why there are so few changes from the Six Nations.

“We have been in camp for a few days. I announced the team to the players this morning so decided to announce it this afternoon,” he said.

“I have spoken a number of times since the end of the Six Nations about consistency in selection and while there are a number of players from the Six Nations unavailable for this series, I think other than that you see a lot of consistency in selection.

“We’re preparing for a really well coached Japan team. Everyone knows the quality of Eddie as a coach. He’s incredibly well respected for all the good things he did for English rugby. We expect a really skilful, talented, well organised Japan team on Saturday.”

Players to watch

The backline is where Japan can cause England problems and, to do that, they have included youngster Yoshitaka Yazaki. The full-back has to yet to play a professional game but he impressed at the World Rugby U20 Championship and has been rewarded for fine performances in the recent Pacific Challenge. Small in stature but incredibly fast and elusive, Yazaki will be fun to watch, but it will be a big challenge against an England side that will put him under pressure aerially.

Alongside the 20-year-old is Jone Naikabula, who enjoyed a fine season in Japan Rugby League League One. Naikabula established himself as a key part of the squad during the World Cup and Jones evidently likes what he sees from the wing. He contains both power and pace, which will be key if they are to get the Red Rose on the back foot.

Up front, it is a big day for the front five. Debutants Takayoshi Mohara and Mamoru Harada have been tasked with negating the English power while at lock Warner Dearns and Sanaila Waqa also have key roles in the set-piece. Dearns, who is a real talent, is one of the few Japanese forwards to compete with the size and power of the English, so it will be fascinating to see how he goes.

As for England, it is a significant tour for Marcus Smith, who quite rightly gets an opportunity to stake his claim for the fly-half jersey. After George Ford’s injury, the Harlequins star has been seen as the next in line despite the superb form of Fin Smith for Northampton Saints. The 25-year-old knows he is under pressure to perform but it will be great to finally see him take ownership of this more expansive Red Rose side.

Smith will also get help from George Furbank, another player with a point to prove, even if he cemented his position at the end of the Six Nations. Furbank was selected ahead of Freddie Steward because of his playmaking capabilities, and against Ireland, he managed to give Borthwick’s men an extra dimension in attack. The full-back will look to do that again on Saturday, especially against a side who likes to play fast and loose, which could play to his strengths.

The English backline should get plenty of front foot ball from their pack, where Ben Earl resides. Earl has become a world-class player over the past 12 months and he will be vital in New Zealand, so it is important the number eight gets up to speed quickly. He should enjoy the match on Saturday, given his natural athleticism and carrying qualities, both out wide and at close quarters.

Main head-to-head

It is a case of master versus the apprentice when Michael Leitch faces off with Chandler Cunningham-South. Handed his first start after some impressive cameos off the bench, the 21-year-old will seek to give Borthwick something to think about ahead of the Tests against the All Blacks.

Everyone knows the power Cunningham-South brings on both sides of the ball, but it is perhaps his set-piece work which the head coach will study more closely this weekend. With Courtney Lawes retired and Ollie Chessum injured, the Red Rose need a lineout option in the back-row and he can provide that. It is something the youngster did well for Quins towards the end of last season, but it will be put to the test by Leitch.

The 35-year-old is not just a legend of Japanese rugby but also a great of the sport in general having produced world-class displays over several years. Like his opposite number, Leitch is physical on both sides of the ball but he is more of a breakdown threat, as well as being an established set-piece operator. It will be a good test for the England man.


We were surprised by the complete overhaul from Jones and, as a result, we can’t see past a dominant win for Borthwick’s men. They have gone for continuity from the Six Nations, which is the correct decision, and they should have far too much class in Tokyo. England by 40 points.

Previous results

2023: England won 34-12 in Nice
2022: England won 52-13 at Twickenham
2018: England won 35-15 at Twickenham
1987: England won 60-7 in Sydney

The teams

Japan: 15 Yoshitaka Yazaki, 14 Jone Naikabula, 13 Dylan Riley, 12 Tomoki Osada, 11 Koga Nezuka, 10 Seungsin Lee, 9 Naoto Saito, 8 Faulua Makisi, 7 Tiennan Costley, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Warner Dearns, 4 Sanaila Waqa, 3 Shuhei Takeuchi, 2 Mamoru Harada, 1 Takayoshi Mohara
Replacements: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Shogo Miura, 18 Keijiro Tamefusa, 19 Amanaki Saumaki, 20 Kai Yamamoto, 21 Shinobu Fujiwara, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Samisoni Tua

England: 15 George Furbank, 14 Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Lawrence, 11 Tommy Freeman, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Alex Mitchell, 8 Ben Earl, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Chandler Cunningham-South, 5 George Martin, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George (c), 1 Bevan Rodd
Replacements: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Tom Curry, 21 Harry Randall, 22 Fin Smith, 23 Tom Roebuck

Date: Saturday, June 22
Venue: National Stadium, Tokyo
Kick-off: 14:50 local (06:50 BST, 05:50 GMT)
Referee: Luc Ramos (France)
Assistant Referees: Eoghan Cross (Ireland), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)

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