TOYOTA CITY – Japan’s stunning 19-12 victory over Ireland last weekend set them on course for top spot in their Rugby World Cup Pool A but that hard-earned advantage will be largely undone if they do not see off Samoa at the City of Toyota Stadium on Saturday.
Expectations have been raised significantly in the host nation since their Irish success, not just because of the result but also the accomplished way the side disposed of a team who entered the tournament ranked as number one in the world.
But with the euphoria comes an extra dose of pressure to maintain that standard, especially after the heartbreak of 2015 when the Brave Blossoms became the only team in World Cup history to win three pool matches but not advance to the quarter-finals.
Coach Jamie Joseph has made three changes to his starting line-up, including the return of squad captain Michael Leitch, who replaces Kazuki Himeno on the side of the scrum as the latter switches to number eight for the injured Amanaki Mafi.
Hooker Shota Horie, man of the match against Ireland, drops to the bench and is replaced by Atsushi Sakate, while Wimpie van der Walt takes over from Luke Thompson at lock.
“We're finding that test matches are very tight and there is so much pressure at the end of the match, it's crucial we have a strong bench,” Joseph told reporters on Thursday.
“Shota Horie, who had a very good game against Ireland, played the whole 80 minutes. We like him coming on, another very good experienced player. So there's that balance.”
Joseph believes there will be plenty of fire in the Samoan bellies as they fight to stay in the tournament.
“They'll be hurting, they’ve had some tough times but they are the sorts of things that usually bring the team tight together, so we're expecting a really physical and tough game.”
Samoa’s stuttering start to their World Cup has been largely self-inflicted with an unconvincing 34-9 victory over pool minnows Russia followed by a dismal 34-0 defeat to Scotland.
The Pacific islanders have not been helped by four yellow cards so far in the competition, and coach Steve Jackson joked he might have to cosy up to Saturday’s referee, Jaco Peyper.
“We're going to take him out for dinner and then go to have a drink,” Jackson told reporters. “Our captain will be talking more to the referee but it's about what we can do possibly in the game.”
Jackson added that the investment made by Japanese rugby in their national team should be a blueprint for other nations, such as Samoa, to follow.
“They've selected great coaches to run their national team and they've had massive support to what they're trying to do and obviously last weekend you saw what it means for them,” he said.
“They've got some world-class players in their squad and that doesn't happen overnight.”
Samoa have made six changes to their staring XV from the team that succumbed so meekly to the Scots, with hooker Seilala Lam joining brother, and captain, Jack, in the run-on side.
Loose-head prop Jordan Lay will also start, with his brother, tight-head prop James, among the replacements.
Lock Piula Faasalele, scrum-half Dwayne Polataivao, fly-half Ulupano Seuteni and wing Ah See Tuala are the others to have been drafted into the team.