Samoa go into Round 3 of the IRB Pacific Nations Cup with their fate very much in their own hands.
Fiji’s one-off test with Scotland means the final round of the competition will be played over two weekends with Samoa taking on 2011 champions Japan at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground on June 17, and the Fijians hosting Tonga at Lautoka’s Churchill Park on June 23.
Having already beaten Fiji and Tonga, Stephen Betham’s men simply need to avoid defeat against Japan in order to pick up their second PNC title, and leave their south Pacific rivals battling it out for second place.
Betham’s team shows five changes to the 22 that beat Fiji last weekend.
In the front row, Tii Paulo starts at hooker with Wayne Olo Avei moving down to the bench, while Logovii Mulipola is handed the No. 3 jersey.
Iosefa Tekori takes over from Daniel Crichton in the second row and Kane Thompson is preferred to Ben Masoe at No. 8.
The backs are unchanged with the exception of scrum half, where Kahn Fotualii gets the nod over Jeremy Sua.
The one other change sees Census Johnston on the bench as the replacement prop.
“The players were originally in the squad but because of their contracts in Europe were only released last week,” Betham said.
Betham said he was hoping his players would treat the game as just another test match.
“We are trying not to put any pressure on them,” he said. “This is just another hurdle we need to get over. If we do get the cup, then that will be a bonus.”
The 2010 champions will be up against a side looking to finish the tournament off on a winning note.
“Japan will come out firing,” said Betham. “They were unlucky in their two games. The ball could have bounced a different way and they could have won.”
Japan coach Eddie Jones agreed, saying with a little more experience and a few less mistakes, his side could have reversed the narrow losses to Fiji and Tonga.
“Twelve months ago at the World Cup, Japan never looked like beating Tonga,” Jones said. “Last week, for every minute of the game, I thought we were going to win. But we didn’t.”
Jones blamed the loss on unforced errors and an inability to dominate at the breakdown.
So while he has kept faith with the same 22-man squad, he has made three personnel changes and three positional switches in the starting XV.
“We wanted to strengthen the back row so Takashi Kikutani will start at six and Yuta Mochizuki will move from six to seven. It’s [the back row] an area we have struggled in most. We have not been fantastic contesting opposition ball and stopping the opposition at the gain line,” he said.
The other change in the pack sees Kensuke Hatakeyama return at tighthead prop with Hiroshi Yamashita returning to the bench, a reverse of the switch made before the Tonga game.
In the backs, Harumichi Tatekawa shifts from inside centre to fly half and Ryan Nicholas changes the No. 13 shirt for the No. 12.
Tomohiro Senba, who came off the bench last week, returns to the starting line-up at outside centre.
“We are aware of what we have to do to beat Samoa,” Jones said. It’s a physical challenge and we have to stop them at the gain line. With the bench we have picked, we will look to finish stronger than we did last week and convert the opportunities we create into points. If we do that we will win the game.”