Strong Sakura Fifteen Side Named for First Fiji Test

Japan Head Coach Lesley McKenzie has today named her Sakura Fifteen side to face Fiji in the first match of their two-test match tour of the Pacific Island nation this Friday, June 14. Kicking off at 15:00 local time, 12:00 midday Japan time at HFC Stadium in the Fijian capital Suva, the match will be the Sakura Fifteen’s first test match of the year.

The team has a decidedly settled feel about it, with 18 of the matchday 23 featuring in last year’s WXV in South Africa, including 16 players who lined up against Scotland in Japan’s final match of the tournament. With the Sakura Fifteens now playing regular test matches, including World Cups and the WXV, test experience across the playing group is growing steadily. The side for Friday’s clash has an average number of test caps of 17, a figure unimaginable in past years.

Openside flaker, Iroha Nagata will Captain the team while celebrating her 30th test appearance. She will lead an experienced forward pack, including 40-test veteran, Seina Saito who anchors the scrum at number-eight and Sachiko Kato who earns her 25th cap at loosehead prop. She is joined in the front row by hooker, Kotomi Taniguchi and Wako Kitano at tighthead.

The replacement front row includes prop Nijiho Nagata who recently returned to Japan from New Zealand where she was part of the Auckland Blues team that won the 2024 Super Rugby Aupiki Championship. She is joined by fellow prop Manami Mine, with Asuka Kuge named as the reserve rake.

In the second-row, the starting locking combination of Yuna Sato and Otoka Yoshimura are joined by Masami Kawamura on the bench, with all three having featured extensively during last year’s WXV. Blindside flanker, Sakurako Korai rounds off the starting backrow alongside Nagata and Saito, with Jennifer Nduka named as the backrow replacement.

In the backs the experienced Moe Tsukui starts at halfback alongside flyhalf Minori Yamato who plays her rugby with the Sale Sharks in England. The centres combination sees Mana Furuta start at inside centre, with Sakurako Hatada outside of her, while in the back-three Komachi Imakugi adds to her 22 tests on the left wing, opposite Nao Ando on the right wing, with Sora Nishimura slotting in at fullback.

The Sakura Fifteen’s bench also holds some backline potency, with Megumi Abe and Ayasa Otsuka named as the replacement halfback and flyhalf respectively. They are joined on the pine by outside back, Haruka Hirotsu.

Japan have faced Fiji in four previous test matches and currently enjoy a 100%-win record against the Pacific Islanders. While Japan recorded a solid 55-0 win in their first encounter during their Rugby World Cup qualifier in 2016, results have been a lot closer over the following three matches with two fixtures last year having just a five-point margin in favour of Japan.

The Sakura Fifteen will be expecting a tough challenge playing Fiji at home in Suva in what will likely be hot and humid conditions. Furthermore, many of the Fijiana will be drawn from the Fijiana Drua team that came runners-up in this year’s Super W competition in Australia. This consistent exposure to high-level competition will likely translate to a highly competitive Fijian national side.

Following Friday’s match, the two sides will meet again for the return fixture at Churchill Park, Lautoka on June 20.

Japan vs Fiji Past Results

16 September 2023 (W) 41-36 Tokyo  

10 September 2023 (W) 29-24 Fukuoka

1 May 2022 (W) 28-14 Gold Coast

13 December 2016 (W) 55-0 Hong Kong