Japan have high hopes of finally banishing a 20-year World Cup win drought when they face Pacific islanders Tonga in a battle of the Pool A minnows on Wednesday.
Opening defeats to France and New Zealand have left Japan's coach, legendary ex-All Black John Kirwan, undaunted as the Brave Blossoms seek to end a barren streak stretching back to 1991.
Kirwan believes Asia's top-ranked side are capable of two wins at this World Cup with games to come against the beefy Tongans in Whangarei, followed by redoubtable Canada in Napier on October 1.
Two wins - which would triple their all-time haul after 1991's 52-8 triumph against Zimbabwe - would make good on Kirwan's bid for Japan to be the "most improved" team as they look ahead to hosting the World Cup in 2019.
"We've had a goal for the last two years to win two games at the World Cup and we would like to be the most improved," Kirwan said after his team's 83-7 blow-out against New Zealand.
"We've got a really big challenge with Tonga and Canada coming up... our World Cup starts now," added Kirwan.
Kirwan, who is ambitiously targeting a top-eight ranking by 2015 and a place in the 2019 final, announced 10 changes for the game as he reverted largely to the team which battled bravely to a 47-21 loss to France in Japan's opening match.
Try-scorer Hirotoki Onozawa is the only surviving back from Friday's rout, while the loose trio of captain Takashi Kikutani, Michael Leitch and Itaru Taniguchi are all retained along with lock Toshizumi Kitagawa.
Tonga also look out of the running for the quarterfinals after last week's surprising defeat to Canada left them with just one bonus point from their opening games.
Coach Isitolo Maka was left desperately disappointed by the 25-20 reverse in front of thousands of Tongan fans in Whangarei, and warned his team would have to recover quickly before facing Japan.
"If we want to beat Japan we have to do everything right," Maka said.
Maka left his brother and team captain Finau out of the team to face Japan as he announced eight changes for the game.
Team officials could not immediately be reached to confirm whether Maka, who played in Tonga's defeats to New Zealand and Canada, was injured. He was reportedly battling an ankle problem before the start of the tournament.
The two teams have never met in the World Cup but Japan holds the edge 7-5 in their other encounters and narrowly won 28-27 when they played at the Pacific Nations Cup in July.
Both sides have a distinguished record in qualifying for the World Cup but Tonga have never reached the quarterfinals in five attempts and ever-present Japan have just one win in 22 games, alongside 2007's 12-12 draw with Canada so there will be all to play for in a game that both teams would have identified as a must-win.
Players to Watch:
For Japan: Flyhalf James Arlidge had a fantastic game when Japan took on France in their opening game and he will be central to their hopes once more as he looks to dictate matters from pivot. Skipper Takashi Kikutani will lead the side from the back of the scrum and the way he deals with the pressure that the Tongan forwards will put on him could be decisive.
For Tonga: Outside centre Siale Piutau can be a devastating runner and he will be looking to ask questions of the Japanese defence, using his pace and guile to find a way through in the midfield. Physical No.8 Viliami Ma'afu is a strong ball carrier, so look for him to get his team on the front foot by barging over the gain line as often as possible.
Head to Head: Tonga have got Kurt Morath back at flyhalf and his battle with Arlidge will certainly be intriguing. Both will be looking to secure a territorial advantage for their team, while accuracy off the kicking tee could be crucial in what should be a closely-fought encounter. The performance of each of the No.8's will also be telling as if either one is dominant it will mean that his pack has won the vital battle up front.
Prediction: It will be very tight, both teams have targeted this game as a must-win and would seem to be quite evenly matched. Both teams changed their teams drastically after impressing in their opening matches but the line-ups for this clash are as strong as possible. Tonga will surely have better support so we are tipping them to edge this one by less than five points.
Tonga: 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Alipate Fatafehi, 11 Sukanaivalu Hufanga, 10 Kurt Morath, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Sione Vaiomo'unga, 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Paino Hehea, 4 Tukulua Lokotui, 3 Taufa'ao Filise, 2 Aleki Lutui (captain), 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Aloisio Ma'asi, 17 Alisona Taumalolo, 18 Halani Aulika, 19 Joseph Tu'ineau, 20 Samiu Vahafolau, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Viliame Iongi.
Japan: 15 Shaun Webb, 14 Kosuke Endo, 13 Alisi Tupuailai, 12 Ryan Nicholas, 11 Hirotoki Onozawa, 10 James Arlidge, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Takashi Kikutani (captain), 7 Michael Leitch, 6 Itaru Taniguchi, 5 Toshizumi Kitagawa, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Kensuke Hatakeyama, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Hisateru Hirashima.
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Aoki, 17 Nozomu Fujita, 18 Hitoshi Ono, 19 Sione Talikavili Vatuvei, 20 Atsushi Hiwasa, 21 Takehisa Usuzuki, 22 Murray Williams.
Date: Wednesday, September 21
Kick-off: 19.30 (07.30 GMT)
Venue: Northland Events Centre, Whangarei
Expected weather: Fine with a westerly breeze. Max 19°C, Min 9°C
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Stuart Terheege (England)
TMO: Giulio De Santis (Italy)
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