Japan v New Zealand: Five talking points ahead of Tokyo clash as box office wings collide

Adam Kyriacou
Kotaro Matsushima v Caleb Clarke

Ahead of Saturday’s opening game of the end-of-year internationals, we pick out five key talking points for the Japan v New Zealand clash in Tokyo.

A sell-out crowd of 65,000 spectators will be in attendance at Japan’s largest ever crowd for a Test match played outside the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Here’s our talking points as the Brave Blossoms take on the All Blacks.

Stephen Perofeta’s chance finally arrives

Patient is one word to describe Perofeta’s wait for a decent crack of the whip in an All Black jersey as he’s only featured briefly since his call-up to the squad earlier this year. Finally though he gets a start in what promises to be a fast-paced game at the Japan National Stadium and he should relish just that.

Perofeta’s form for the Blues in Super Rugby Pacific helped them finish top of the table en route to being beaten in the final by the Crusaders. Despite that loss, he can be proud of his personal campaign as he flourished as a second playmaker alongside Beauden Barrett. He will look to complement Richie Mo’unga in the same way this Saturday and with Damian McKenzie nipping at his heels on tour, Perofeta knows the pressure is on to perform but expect him to grab this chance.

Make or break for Braydon Ennor at centre

Outside centre has been a position the All Blacks have struggled to fill since Conrad Smith’s retirement, with Rieko Ioane having been the latest experiment that head coach Ian Foster appears to have stuck with. Having the vastly experienced Anton Lienert-Brown return from injury on the bench this week is a major boost but he has been held back as Ennor gets the nod from the off, with the Crusaders centre keen to prove he belongs at this level after injuries of his own.

Despite a promising start to his Super Rugby career a few years ago, the jury remains out on whether Ennor boasts the necessary tools to be the All Blacks’ answer at 13 moving forward. He must cut out sloppy errors and be ruthless in attack in Tokyo or his chances of playing more this autumn will pass him by.

Bring on Kotaro Matsushima v Caleb Clarke

When looking for head-to-heads, this jumps out from the teamsheets as Japan’s excitement machine Matsushima goes up against the flying All Black wing Clarke.

Those who did not already know the qualities Matsushima possesses certainly found out in the 2019 World Cup on home soil. He is the poster boy for the Brave Blossoms, due to his ability to keep fans on the edge of their seats. Put simply, if Japan maximise his involvement, their chances of victory will increase.

Facing him is one of the in-form All Blacks of the recent Rugby Championship campaign. Clarke is such a handful in possession and unlike Matsushima prefers to take the more direct route with ball in hand, but is also capable of beating defenders with speed and a wicked step. Tune to just to watch this duel alone.

Can the Brave Blossoms cause a big upset?

There were odds of 33/1 of Japan claiming a shock win over the All Blacks earlier today but they’ve since been cut, which is a sign something is brewing. While it’s unlikely, no one thought the Boks would come unstuck in Brighton and with a packed out home support cheering them on, could the unthinkable happen?

New Zealand have been wise to the potential banana skin by naming a strong 23 that isn’t overly experimental, but if the All Blacks struggle to fire and Japan get on a roll and use that Tokyo crowd to their benefit, what a story it would be to begin the year-end action, which would put the pressure back on Foster.

Set-piece will be crucial to the result

It’s widely perceived that the arrival of Jason Ryan from the Crusaders as forwards coach was the catalyst for the All Blacks going on to claim the 2022 Rugby Championship title. From his first interview with the All Blacks a couple of months ago, it was clear New Zealand had made a shrewd and necessary appointment.

Victory at Ellis Park in Round Two of that competition set them on their way as the set-piece was much improved thereafter, so if Japan are to come out on top this weekend, matching New Zealand in this area is going to be essential. All eyes will therefore be on Jiwon Gu, Atsushi Sakate and Keita Inagaki in the front-row at scrum time, while the hosts must also stop Tupou Vaa’i and Brodie Retallick from stealing too much ball at the lineout.

READ MORE: New Zealand: Stephen Perofeta and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to start for All Blacks against Japan