England vs Japan – A third ever Test with showstopping matchups

Eddie Jones was head coach of Japan for three years before taking on the England job in 2015

On Saturday afternoon when England host Japan at Twickenham Stadium, it will just the third time ever that the two teams have played one another.

It was in the 1987 Rugby World Cup when the team’s first met for a Test match, the two country’s only other interactions coming when the English sides that Japan faces were the Students, U23s or XV sides.

At the Concord Oval that day England would end the game as 60-7 victors, Michael Harrison bagging a hat-trick in the Pool stages. It took 31 one years for the two teams to meet in the Test match arena once again, that game coming four years ago when England had to dig deep to overcome a stubborn Brave Blossoms side.

Due to have toured Japan before Covid-19 struck, this weekend’s game for each will be a major challenge as the road to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France next year. Of course, the two teams are linked, with former Japan coach Eddie Jones having been at the helm of England for the past seven years, but still a popular figure in Japan due to his successes.

Masterminding Japan’s miraculous 32-34 win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, it was that stunning result in Brighton that really put Japan on the map. Everyone already knew the country would be hosts of the 2019 World Cup, and in the years that have followed the team now led by Jamie Joseph have beaten Italy, Scotland and Ireland, as well as drawn with France in 2017.

In their last Test the Sakura pushed the All Blacks close, falling just short at New Zealand eventually won 38-31 after Brodie Retallick’s red card. For England following their disappointing 29-30 loss at the hands of Argentina on Sunday, Saturday’s game could well compound that previous result.

However, when the prospect of a ‘banana skin’ matchup is brought up to Jones, the 62-year-old says that he believes that rugby is better off with more competitive teams.

“How are they going to bite me?” he said. “That is what we want in world rugby, why wouldn’t we want that [a competitive Japan]? I am really pleased for them doing well.

“Rugby, it is not in a great spot at the moment, is it? And to have such a vibrant international competition is fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Whoever thought Japan could consistently ninth or 10th in the world? How good is that for World Rugby? We should be celebrating the fact this is a big game at Twickenham, there are 82,000 sold out.”

It was only months after the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final that the world went into lockdown. A global pandemic took the world over and for a while all the momentum of that tournament stopped dead.

This was especially the case for Japan, who were unable to play again until they went to Edinburgh in 2021 to play the British and Irish Lions. Jones still goes to Japan regularly, living there throughout the year when not on England duty, his wife coming from the country also and is well-placed to talk about how the game is faring there after such a static period.

“The game is going through the roof,” he said. “Post-2019 I remember going to a game, as a fan, NEC vs Suntory at the back of the Western Suburbs of Tokyo.

“I had to get escorted out of the ground. I got absolutely mobbed. My wife had to come get me. I was getting pinned against this sushi caravan and the fans were coming from everywhere.

“The game was going nuts and then Covid put a hold on it but is coming back. There were 60,000 at the National Stadium and it is just fantastic for international rugby.”

Headline news

One thing that Jones was extremely keen to talk about was his former player, Michael Leitch. The former captain of Japan, the 34-year-old has been a staple of the Brave Blossoms since 2008, the New Zealand-born forward having and will start against England on Saturday.

Over the years the flanker has endeared himself to the Japanese public in no short part thanks to his hard work and in Tokyo there is a statue of him in a public park. His opposite number this week will be Maro Itoje, the England head coach believing we are in for a blockbuster encounter between the duo.

“I am just looking forward to him this week playing six against Michael Leitch,” Jones said. “He’s a very dear friend [Leitch] of mine, but they are both totem players. When Leitch goes forward, when Leitch steals a lineout, Leitch steals a breakdown, the whole Japan team lifts.

“So, Maro is head to head with him, and Maro is the same for us. You look at the end of last week. 79th minute of the game and they have got a rumble on, the referee doesn’t want to make any decisions, Maro stops the maul. We get a chance to win the game.

“Then we go through the hole, we get the opportunity – if Sladey [Henry Slade] catches the ball, we win the game on the back of Maro’s work. That’s why I am looking forward to seeing them play six versus six. Leith vs Itoje. They should be the headlines.”

A Twickenham cauldron

To lose by only seven points to the All Blacks should be a real point of pride for this Japan team. Having not been able to even consider playing international rugby for the better part of two years, Jamie Joseph’s team arrive in London as a real threat to an England team hurt by their loss to Argentina last weekend.

Even so, their experience against England is limited. Just the third time these two teams will come up against each other in their history, there is no form book to look at, which while an exciting prospect makes any result possible.

“We are just excited about the match,” Joseph said. “It’s a big game for us, playing England at Twickenham. It’s one of rugby’s biggest challenges for a player, so that’s what we are excited about.

“We look at England as a very different opposition to the All Blacks. It’s a cauldron at Twickenham and it can be very intimidating if you are not ready for it, but I think our guys are. I think they are really excited that they are going to be 23 men representing Japan in front of 80,000 Englishmen.

“I don’t believe we are under pressure. I don’t think anybody expects us to win that game but we’ve got 23 guys who are very motivated to do well.”

England starting XV: Freddie Steward; Jack Nowell, Guy Porter, Owen Farrell (C), Jonny May; Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet; Ellis Genge, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Kyle Sinckler, David Ribbans, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds

Replacements: Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Joe Heyes, Alex Coles, Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi

Japan starting XV: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Dylan Riley, Ryoto Nakamura, Gerhard Van den Heever; Takuya Yamasawa, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Atsushi Sakate, Jiwon Gu, Warner Dearns, Jack Cornelsen, Michael Leitch, Kazuki Himeno, Tevita Tatafu.

Replacements: Kosuke Horikoshi, Craig Millar, Yusuke Kizu, Wimoie Van der Walt, Pieter Labuschagne, Naoto Saito, Seungsin Lee, Siosaia Fifita