Kiwi connection looms large as Japan face red-hot Wallabies

Oita (Japan) (AFP) – Australia coach Dave Rennie is expecting a brutal, high-paced game on Saturday against a dangerous Japanese side mentored by a cohort of fellow New Zealanders as the Wallabies look to bank a fifth straight win.


The two sides haven't met since 2017 in Yokohama when Australia piled on 63 points, but the Brave Blossoms have come a long way in the intervening years.

Having secured a quarter-final slot at their home World Cup in 2019, Jamie Joseph's side continued building, establishing themselves as a legitimate tier one rugby nation.

But they have suffered from a lack of opportunities, playing just twice since the World Cup -- a spirited 28-10 loss to the British and Irish Lions in June before narrowly falling to Ireland 39-31.

Despite this, Rennie is understandably wary, with former All Black Joseph having fellow New Zealanders Tony Brown and Scott Hansen on his coaching staff, helping produce an up-tempo attacking style.

"Always brutal, always high-paced, so I expect the same," he said of Japan.

"They've got Scott Hansen in their mix too from a defensive point of view. A smart man, who's worked a lot with the (Canterbury) Crusaders. They've got a very good, astute coaching group.

"We know they will be very well prepared and fit."

Joseph and Rennie have history -- Rennie coached the Waikato Chiefs to back-to-back Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013 while Joseph was in charge when the Otago Highlanders stole his limelight by being crowned champions in 2015.

The Wallabies head into the afternoon clash at Oita in a rich vein of form as they warm up for a tough upcoming European tour against Scotland, England and Wales.

They are gunning for a fifth consecutive win after twice beating world champions South Africa then going back-to-back against Argentina in the recent Rugby Championship, results that propelled them to third in the world

"We're going to have to do a good job around the quality of our defence and slowing their ball down to get a wall in front of them," said Rennie of the threat posed by 10th-ranked Japan.

"They'll also kick a bit and we'll need to as well. It should be a belter."

Getting stronger

They go into the game without star winger Marika Koroibete who withdrew for family reasons, and Japan-based centre Samu Kerevi, who is recovering from an ankle injury.

Hunter Paisami was recalled as cover for Kerevi while Tom Wright earned a start in Koroibete's absence.

Japan have only played twice since the 2019 World Cup
Japan have only played twice since the 2019 World Cup Donall Farmer POOL/AFP

Japan will kick off with South African-born flanker Pieter Labuschagne leading the team, having taken over the captaincy from experienced loose forward Michael Leitch, who will come off the bench.

The side has an Australian flavour, with Brisbane-educated bruising forward Ben Gunter handed a debut, while Australia-born lock James Moore will also play, as will flanker Jack Cornelsen, the son of ex-Wallaby Greg.

"It's a massive challenge for us as a group, particularly because it's our first game in a while. But it's something we're really looking forward to," said Joseph.

"The Australian team is getting stronger with every match. They've always had quality players, they've got a quality coaching group, and they're very well managed.

"We obviously know Dave (Rennie) really well, and know how committed he is to his team," he added.

Japan (15-1): Semisi Masirewa; Lomano Lava Lemeki, Timothy Lafaele, Ryota Nakamura, Siosaia Fifita; Rikiya Matsuda, Yutaka Nagare; Kazuki Himeno, Pieter Labuschagne (capt), Ben Gunter; James Moore, Jack Cornelsen; Jiwon Gu, Atsushi Sakate, Keita Inagaki

Replacements: Yusuke Niwai, Craig Millar, Asaeli Ai Valu, Michael Leitch, Tevita Tatafu, Naoto Saito, Yu Tamura, Dylan Riley

Australia (15-1): Reece Hodge; Tom Wright, Len Ikitau, Hunter Paisami, Andrew Kellaway; Quade Cooper, Nic White; Rob Valetini, Michael Hooper (capt), Rob Leota; Matt Philip, Izack Rodda; Taniela Tupou, Folau Fainga'a, James Slipper

Replacements: Connal McInerney, Angus Bell, Alan Alaalatoa, Darcy Swain, Pete Samu, Tate McDermott, James O'Connor, Jordan Petaia