Japan’s pre-World Cup crisis continues as they suffer a 24-22 home loss to Samoa in Sapporo to boost England’s tournament hopes
- Japan suffered a defeat against Samoa which deepened the pre-tournament crisis
- Talisman Michael Leitch was sent off for a high tackle on So’otala Fa’aso’o
- They are England’s second opponents in the round-robin stage in September
England’s hopes of at least reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup were bolstered on Saturday as pool rivals Japan suffered a home defeat to Samoa, deepening their pre-tournament slump.
Michael Leitch, the talisman and former captain of the Brave Blossoms, was sent off in the 30th minute of the Pacific Nations Cup match in Sapporo, for a high tackle on the visitors’ back rower, So’otala Fa’aso’o. Samoa – who are also in Pool D of the world showpiece in France this fall – won 24-22, having trailed 10-3.
Japan are England’s second opponents in the round-robin stage, in Nice on September 17, and in theory are seen as a significant threat.
As hosts, they qualified for the quarter-finals of the last World Cup after pool wins over Ireland and Scotland. Their bold attacking play captured the imagination of their home crowd – with over 60 million viewers watching them narrowly lose to future champions South Africa.
However, the Covid pandemic has had a devastating effect on the Far Eastern nation, which has been without testing for far longer than most other major countries.
Japan suffered a loss to Samoa on Saturday which deepened their pre-World Cup slump
Talisman Michael Leitch was sent off in the 30th minute for a high tackle on So’otala Fa’aso’o
Since returning to action, Japan have lost 15 of their last 19 Tests and were beaten 52-13 by a struggling England side at Twickenham last autumn – weeks before Eddie Jones was sacked as Red Rose head coach.
Jamie Joseph reacted to this latest setback saying: “We have to be better in every way in terms of skill and discipline.” But time is running out for Japan. They have home fixtures ahead of Tonga and Fiji and then a clash with Italy in Treviso before a soft World Cup opener against Chile in Toulouse on September 10 – seven days before Steve Borthwick’s England encounter.
Japan will now eagerly await the outcome of Leitch’s disciplinary hearing. The 34-year-old, New Zealand-born, has a relatively clean record, despite serving a one-game ban for a high tackle in 2017. Even if his offense is rated as average – which would be a harsh interpretation – and he is found guilty, he should still be available to play again by the start of the World Cup.
Samoa’s notable win in Sapporo came despite a host of senior players staying home after long and grueling club seasons in Europe. They were helped by a change in eligibility rules which allowed head coach Seilala Mapusua – London’s iconic former Irish center – to select a host of former All Blacks such as Bristol’s Steven Luatua, Lima Sopoaga and Charlie Faumuina, as well as former Wallaby playmaker Christian Leali’ifano.
Their ability to upset Japan without multiple beacons on duty suggests they can create unpredictability and risk in World Cup Pool D. When the World Rugby Rankings are updated, Samoa could rise to 10th place, ahead of the Brave Blossoms and with ninth-placed Wales in their sights. Their rise is further proof that eligibility reform can allow Pacific island nations to cause shocks and challenges for quarter-final places.
England will face Samoa in Lille on October 7. Borthwick and his coaching assistants will have noted their latest result and assertive performance with interest and perhaps even slight concern. If England go into this final game of the group stage needing a clear win to progress, they will know such a result is no formality, given how quickly Mapusua’s side are improving.
When the World Rugby Rankings are updated, Samoa could be up to 10th place
Japan are England’s second opponents in the round-robin stage on September 17
Past World Cup fixtures will serve to focus English minds ahead of this game in north-east France. In 2007, in Nantes, England had to repel a fiery response from Samoa to win 44-22.
Four years earlier, Sir Clive Woodward’s champion team had been scared off by the same Polynesian opponents; trailing 10-0 early and still chasing the game midway through the second half, before securing an unconvincing 35-22 victory in Melbourne.
This fall, England will face Argentina at the opening of the tournament, before facing Japan, Chile and Samoa. Provided they qualify for the knockout stage, they are likely to meet Australia or Wales in the quarter-finals in Marseille, although Fiji – who beat Tonga 36-20 on Saturday – are another possible opponent, should they claim a big scalp in their Pool C campaign.