By Rich Freeman
Japan and Tonga get the IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2013 underway on Saturday when they play at the compact Nippatsu Mitsuzawa Stadium in Yokohama, the first time the ground has ever hosted a Test match.
The hosts come into the game having once again retained their HSBC Asian 5 Nations title, but more importantly on the back of a six-game winning streak dating back to their tour of Europe last November.
Victory against Tonga would give them a national record for consecutive wins and set them up nicely for the five tests they have in the following four weeks.
But they are up against a side that will be looking to build on their win over Scotland last year, which lifted them to their current IRB World Ranking of 11, four above the hosts.
Japan and Tonga have played 14 times, with the victories shared seven apiece, but the visitors have won their last two encounters – including a do-or-die clash at Rugby World Cup 2011 – and won't be lacking for local knowledge with seven of the Tongan 23-man squad having played in the Top League.
“We know Japanese rugby is all about speed and pace so hopefully we can shut them down,” said Captain Nili Latu, who is about to start his seventh season with NEC Green Rockets.
“The good thing is if they (Japan) keep targeting me and Hale (T Pole) then that creates opportunities for those outside. And unlike when I play in Japan there are 14 other Tongans playing with me so I can do things I don't normally do.”
Eddie Jones previews PNC 2013
Former Suntory Sungoliath and Ricoh Black Rams flanker T Pole joins Latu and Paula Kaho in the back row, as the Pacific islanders look to impose a physical presence.
“Physicality is obviously foremost,” said coach Mana 'Otai, when asked how he brings together the playing styles his players were used to. “Having all the different styles can be made into an advantage.”
Fangatapu 'Apikotoa, who plies his trade for the Amatori Parma club in Italy, gets the nod at fly half ahead of Kurt Morath, as 'Otai looks to continue on from November's win over Scotland.
But a number of players are still missing as was the team's kit. “Hopefully it will turn up tomorrow,” said the coach. “We have to play in something, though as I tell the boys as long as we have Tonga underneath that's all that matters.”
Japan coach Eddie Jones, meanwhile, has picked a big, bruising side as he looks to match the Tongans' physicality. “Tonga will try to bully us and we need to stand up to them and not go backwards,” he said.
Masataka Mikami, Takeshi Kizu and Hiroshi Yamashita start in the front row as Japan look to reap the benefits of some intense scrum training under Fabio Ongaro and Marc dal Mosa.
“We will need Yamashita's weight early on in the tight and Kizu is a big guy who really came on during the Asian 5 Nations,” said Jones.
Hitoshi Ono and Shinya Makabe provide height and bulk in the second row, while Captain Takashi Kikutani, Michael Broadhurst and Hendrik Tui form an abrasive back row.
Behind the pack, Hirotoki Onozawa will win his 79th cap, making him the most capped Brave Blossom alongside Yukio Motoki.
Jones lauded the wing saying it was a massive achievement, while Onozawa tried to downplay the importance of the day stressing it was important for the team to do well.
“We need to keep our shape, play the game at our pace and work on our communication,” he said.
With the start of summer having arrived and the ground in perfect condition, Jones was hopeful Japan would be able to play their own style of rugby.
“The faster the track and the hotter it is tomorrow the better it is for us.”
RWC Qualifier preview
On the same day Canada and USA’s old rivalry is given a new stage as they begin life in the Pacific Nations Cup.
Dating back to 1977, the sides have met a total of 48 times in senior men’s rugby, but the latest cross-border derby will be the first in an expanded PNC competition that features five teams. Fiji begin their campaign at home to Japan on Saturday June 1.
Each of the nations will play four matches spread out over the next month, with a one-off Test against Ireland also factored into both Canada and the USA’s schedule as a further demonstration of the IRB’s commitment to enhancing and increasing the playing programmes of Tier Two nations.
Canada and USA will also meet twice in August in back-to-back Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifying matches.
For USA Head Coach Mike Tolkin bigger is definitely better. “This is the most Tests we’ve had in a year – ever,” he said.
“This tournament enables us to play teams around our level (Tonga are the highest ranked side at 11, the USA the lowest at 16) and I’m sure it’ll be very competitive.
"About a year and a half ago we met with the IRB and said that we needed more competitive matches to keep developing and they came good with this tournament. It is a massive step forward for us.”
Tolkin is forced to make just five changes to the side that comfortably defeated Romania, 34-3, back in November for their PNC curtain-raiser at Ellerslie Rugby Park, Edmonton.
European-based stars Scott LaValla (Stade Francais), Takudzwa Ngwenya (Biarritz) and Chris Wyles (Saracens) are being rested following a rigorous club season, while Chris Biller and Paul Emerick (both injury) also miss out. Wyles’ absence sees Adam Siddall handed his debut at full back.
Inside centre Patrick Parfrey, 21, makes his Test bow for Canada who will be looking to extend their winning run over the Eagles to five matches.
However Tolkin says his side, buoyed by a 2-1 autumn Test series win - their first in over a decade, will not lack for motivation.
"We would like to win this tournament and a win against Canada would obviously set us off in the right direction," he said. "You don’t need a whole lot of fuel to get the fire going against Canada; it’s our local derby."
The sides will be led out by their most experienced players and opposing number 8s, Aaron Carpenter (Canada) and Todd Clever (USA), who are both honing in on a half-century of appearances for their respective countries.