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[ODDS and EVENS] Rugby World Cup: A Test of Mettle for Japan and Samoa

Coming off losses to England and Argentina, respectively, at the Rugby World Cup, the Brave Blossoms and Samoa look to get back on track.

Notwithstanding the quirks of the Rugby World Cup's Pool D schedule, Japan manager Jamie Joseph and his Samoa counterpart, Seilala Mapusua, have hammered home the same message to their teams.

One difference, though: Joseph has had several more days to deliver his thoughts on the Brave Blossoms' clash with Samoa.

But the significance of the teams' encounter in Toulouse, France, on Thursday night, September 28 (kickoff at 4 AM JST on Friday) cannot be overstated. Both head coaches have declared that their team needs a win to keep alive hopes of advancing to the RWC quarterfinals in France.

Does world No 12 Samoa have the edge?

Samoa owns a 12-5 record in head-to-head matches against Japan. But don't forget this: Host Japan manhandled Samoa 38-19 in September 2019 at the Rugby World Cup in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture.

In the teams' most recent encounter, Samoa topped 14-man Japan 24-22 on July 22 in the Pacific Nations Cup. 

"We’re not comparing the Samoa team that we played four years ago to the team that we’re seeing now and that we played in Sapporo," Joseph, whose squad is 13th in the latest world rankings released on September 25, said on Tuesday.

Although history certainly suggests the advantage goes to the Polynesian island country, Mapusua insisted pre-Rugby World Cup results aren't a real indicator of anything that has happened in France.

"We have seen an improvement in the Japanese team and an improvement in our own team," Mapusua was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse on Tuesday. "So while we played each other back in July both teams have improved, so we can't really look too much to that game and that result."

Rugby World Cup
Japan hooker Shota Horie, seen in a team workout on September 25, is appearing in his fourth Rugby World Cup. (ⒸSANKEI)

Rugby World Cup Results for Both Teams

Japan opened its 2023 RWC campaign with a 34-12 rout of Chile on September 10.

Samoa followed with a 43-10 drubbing of tournament debutant Chile on September 16.

England walloped Japan 34-12 on September 17, pulling away in the second half after taking a 13-9 lead into the break.

Samoa dropped a 19-10 decision to Argentina on September 22. The victorious Pumas had a 13-day break since its tourney-opening defeat (27-10) to England on September 10, while, oddly enough, the schedule makers gave Samoa only five days to rest between matches.

Based on the one-sided results against Chile, Japan and Samoa both have five points ― thanks to bonus-point wins. Although both teams have six tries in France, Samoa currently has the edge on points difference (plus 16).

Samoa will close out the opening round against England (3-0) on October 7. Japan has an October 8 encounter against Argentina (1-1) to focus on after its next match.

As one of the in-the-spotlight voices disseminating Joseph's outlook on the Samoa match in Toulouse, Japan defense coach John Mitchell underlined the high-stakes pressure of the match.

"We're at a situation at this tournament where they are actually going to have to fight and care for each other more than any other day ― it's not just like any other test match," Mitchell was quoted as saying by BBC Sport.

"It's really important on both sides of the ball that we really do show our heart and how much it means to us and how much this tournament is an opportunity to present a message to the next generation."

Rugby World Cup
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph oversees his team's practice on September 27. (Stephane Mahe/REUTERS)

Joseph's Perspective on Japan vs Samoa

Looking ahead to the task at hand, Joseph, who led Japan to the RWC quarterfinals for the first time in 2019, said he believes the Brave Blossoms have effectively prepared to compete against Samoa.

"We've had a really good week and we've got a plan in place to counter what we experienced in the second half last week (against England)," Joseph commented, "when it gets physically and mentally tough and the test match is on the line."

The coach continued: "We'll be playing a very strong team in Samoa, but we've got confidence in the way we play rugby. We've had a bit more time to strategize around how we want to do that and had some time to recover from the England match, which the guys put emotionally a lot of effort into. We felt we created pressure on England, but we just weren't good enough to put them away. We want to make sure we get ourselves into that position against Samoa but be good enough to carry it on and get the result."

What will it take to beat Samoa?

Joseph said it boils down to this: "We will have to be at our very best to beat them."

If either Japan or Samoa wins its last two Pool A fixtures, it will advance to the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals. Otherwise, Argentina will grab the second Pool D berth (after England).

Rugby World Cup
Japan's Kotaro Matsushima (center) trains with teammates on September 27. (Stephane Mahe/REUTERS)

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Lineup Continuity for Japan, Samoa

The Brave Blossoms' quest to beat Samoa will begin without massive changes to their starting XV.

Joseph announced two changes on Tuesday. South African-born outside center Dylan Riley is back in the starting lineup after a one-match absence, replacing Tomoki Osada. Riley started against Chile but was a second-half replacement against England.

With fullback Semisi Masirewa sustaining a tournament-ending leg injury against England, Joseph opted to pencil in Lomano Lemeki's name to fill in as a starter against Samoa.

Samoa is also sticking with most of its starting 15 from its defeat to Argentina. The exceptions: New starters at flanker (Taleni Seu), No 8 (Jordan Taufua), center (Alai D'Angelo Leuila) and wing (Ed Fidow). 

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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