Japan have made one injury-enforced change to the starting line-up for Sunday's Rugby World Cup quarter-final against South Africa, bringing Ryohei Yamanaka in at fullback in place of William Tupou.
Tupou suffered a concussion in Japan’s hard-fought win over Scotland at Yokohama last weekend and drops out of the matchday 23 altogether, with livewire winger Lomano Lava Lemeki named among the replacements as cover for the back three.
Coach Jamie Joseph also made two changes to the forwards on the bench with Wimpie van der Walt and Amanaki Lelei Mafi replacing fellow big men Uwe Helu and Hendrik Tui.
Japan are looking to repeat their heroics from the 2015 World Cup when they beat South Africa 34-32 in one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history.
Joseph has been praised for his detailed preparations ahead of each match so far at this World Cup, earning four wins from four to top Pool A, but the New Zealander said the players have taken over now.
“It’s really a good sign, as a coach when you feel a little bit redundant,” Joseph said on Friday. “We’ve grown for last five to six weeks, and we’ve grown mentally and with those improvements, there is improvement in their confidence and the game is improving.”
Loosehead prop Jiwon Koo was forced off the pitch against the Scots by a rib injury but has recovered sufficiently to take his place in the front row.
It means Joseph can call on his first-choice pack for what is expected to be a physical match against the Springboks.
It is a challenge captain Michael Leitch and the other forwards are ready for.
“We have been preparing well, as always and making the foundations since February,” said Leitch.
Several key players, including prop Keita Inagaki, who scored a try against Scotland, had been taking team meetings, he added.
“Inagaki held a meeting which was very detailed to raise everyone’s understanding,” Leitch said. “The front six will be very physical, with the scrum and maul. We are preparing for this.”
Before the tournament started, Leitch said Japan wanted to win the World Cup, which raised eyebrows at the time. Now the Brave Blossoms have reached the quarter-finals for the first time, the team are not lowering their expectations.
“This team is not satisfied with what we have today. This is not the end,” said Leitch.
“We are in the last eight... but we want to play more to have a chance to show what we can do.”
“South Africa looks scary, but if we look at our game plan and how to destroy (theirs), we get excited and we gain more confidence to win.”
Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Kenki Fukuoka; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Jiwon Koo, Luke Thompson, James Moore, Michael Leitch (captain), Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno. Replacements: Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Wimpie van der Walt, Amanaki Lelei Mafi, Fumiaki Tanaka Rikiya Matsuda, Lomano Lava Lemeki.