Japan has improved massively since their 145-17 humiliating defeat to the All Blacks during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But as a Tier 2 side, they are still a long way away from being competitive against the All Blacks (which some consider as a “Tier Zero” side).

This article analyses who is likely to play what roles if Japan was to put out their best team and performance for their first test match this November against the Back-to-back World Champions.

The full touring squad list announced on 1 October can be found here. Big omissions were Horie (injury recovery reasons), Mafi (off-field behavioural reasons), Makabe (performance reasons) and Tatekawa (performance reasons).

The predicted match-day 23 and the expected game time for each player is purely data-driven based on the depth chart article.

For example, if Halfback A has played 66% of the minutes available under Jamie Joseph and Halfback B has played 22%, we expect Halfback A to play 60 minutes because:

66/(66+22) = 75%;

75% of 80 minutes = 60 minutes.

Lastly, inspired by the 1014 1-3-3-1 video, I will hypothesize which players are likely to play what roles under the 1-3-3-1 structure based on footages from the Japan vs Tonga match last year. The full match video is legally available on the Official World Rugby Youtube Channel.

The 1-3-3-1 diagram:

Are Japan going to use the 1331

Pod Heads: Hooker (Niwai) and Number 5 (Helu)

What I mean by the “Pod Heads” are the Numbers 1 and 5 on the 1-3-3-1 diagram above.

Player Position Expected playing minutes
Niwai Hooker 59
Sakate Hooker 21
Helu Lock 80

Example of the Hooker playing as a Pod Head can be found during the 10th minute of the Japan vs Tonga match.

Example of the Number 5 playing as a Pod Head can be found at 11th minute of the Japan vs Tonga match. Helu played as a pod head for most of the June 2017 tour as a Number 5. And with the omission of Makabe from the touring squad, I suspect Helu will replace him.

Pod Tails:

What I mean by the “Pod Tails” are the Numbers 2, 3, 4 and 7 on the 1-3-3-1 diagram above.

Player Position Expected playing minutes
Inagaki Loosehead Prop 68
Mikami Loosehead Prop 12
Koo Tighthead Prop 54
Asahara Tighthead Prop 26
Van der Walt Lock 55
Anise Lock 25
Himeno Flanker 56
Nunomaki Flanker 24

Out of the seven tighthead props that were analyzed on the depth chart article, the 1st, 3rd and 4th option was selected for this November’s touring squad.

Wing Pods: Fukuoka (Left wing) and Leitch (Number 8) on the left wing pod. Yamada (Right wing) and Tokunaga (Flanker) on the right wing pod.

What I mean by the “Wing Pods” are the pods created by the Backline Wingers paired with the Forwards positioned on the wings under the 1-3-3-1 structure.

Player Position Expected playing minutes
Leitch Number 8 80
Tokunaga Flanker 80
Fukuoka Left Wing 80
Yamada Right Wing 40
Noguchi Right Wing 40

Example of Leitch playing on the Left Wing Pod with Fukuoka (Number 11) can be found during the 57th minute of the Japan vs Tonga match.

Mafi has typically played on the Right Wing pod. But due to his omission, I believe Tokunaga will play on the Right Wing pod. This is because he played for Japan’s Rio Olympic Games Sevens team and thus has a lot of speed.

Some of the All Blacks who played in the New Zealand side that was beaten by Japan in Rio might be looking forward to a re-match here against Tokunaga and Fukuoka (Lemeki also played for the Japan Sevens side at Rio).

Controllers: Tamura and Matsushima

For Japan, the 10 and 15 control the overall decisions made under the 1-3-3-1 structure.

Generally, what the controllers do is that when there is a ruck created by the Left Wing Pod, the 10 will position himself behind the Left Centre pod and the 15 will be positioned behind the Right Wing Pod (note: the Right Centre Pod won’t usually exist when a ruck is formed by the Left Wing Pod because one or two players from the Right Centre Pod will be used to fill-up the Left Centre Pod since one or two players from the Left Centre Pod will have lined-up close to the ruck). And vice-versa for a ruck created by the Right Wing Pod. The best example of this from the Japan vs Tonga match is during the 32nd minute straight after Tamura (Number 10) receives a pass from Makabe (a Pod Head player). Please comment any questions below if you don’t understand this explanation.

Player Position Expected playing minutes
Tamura Fly-Half 80
Matsushima Fullback 80

Inside Backs excluding 10:

Player Position Expected playing minutes
Tanaka Scrum-Half 50
Nagare Scrum-Half 30
Lafaele 12/13 80
Tupou 12/13 61
Nakamura 12/13 19

A lot of the New Zealand fans will know that Tanaka wore the number 21 jersey for the majority of the 2015 Super Rugby season for the Highlanders that won the championship that year. They were coached under Japan’s Head Coach and Attack Coach, Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown respectively. These three men should be especially looking forward to this match against the All Blacks.

Historical results and Conclusion:

Year Ground Score
1995 Neutral: Free State Stadium (Cheetahs Home Ground) 145-17
2011 New Zealand: Waikato Stadium (Chiefs Home Ground) 83-7
2013 Japan: Prince Chichibu Stadium (Sunwolves Home Ground) 6-54

Next weekend’s match will take place at Ajinomoto Stadium, the stadium for the 2019 Rugby World Cup Opening match. Prince Chichibu Stadium will not host any Rugby World Cup matches due to the stadium’s lack of capacity. This is the third consecutive year where Japan will face a Rugby Championship team at home. Japan scored three tries against the Wallabies last year and only narrowly lost the second half 27-28. However, the Wallabies won 30-63.

It will be a good result if Japan scores one more try than they did against the Wallabies last year and improve on their best result to date against the All Blacks (a 48-point losing margin). Mainly because this will be equivalent to picking up a losing bonus point at a World Cup. Japan can afford to lose one match (probably against Ireland) and still progress to the Quarter Finals.


Author: Kaito Goto


  1. Hi Kaito, thanks again for your work on this. I will be watching the Cherry Blossoms very closely this month. I’ve just been looking at the results for our teams this year and noticed that Japan are (on average) scoring more points and conceding fewer than either Ireland or Scotland. The #RWC2019PartyPool could be a lot closer than many people think.

    • Thanks for your comment as usual Paul. And that is just mind-blowing. Especially how this year Japan hasn’t played any Tier 3 sides, unlike last year! Massive achievement if they can maintain that position for that stat after their big matches against the AB’s and England.

    • Thanks for your kind comment CMc but I must give credit to Gareth and Steve for taking the time to publish this article out of their busy schedule.

      • Yeah the squad the All Blacks coaches announced looks a lot stronger than I expected. But maybe that’s because the gap between the first and second choice All Black players are so slim? What’s your thoughts on the AB squad?

        • I dont know anything about the new caps. But Im sure they are all brilliantly talented. Familiarity with the systems & each other is surely going to be the problem. I think you are right. Japan could score 4 tries here. Do that & you have a chance against NZ.
          I’m calling it Jap 35 v 33 NZ

          • Japan and New Zealand play with a similar style. So its essential for Japans scrum to put pressure on the tightheads Taavo and Lomax who only have one test cap between them. If they can do that, I will geniunely believe a Japan win 28-24.

  2. Thirteen of the Japan starting 15 is almost certainly the strongest possible in Josephs mind with the injuries and off-field problems we currently have (Matsushima, Nogichi, Horie and Mafi). A little surprised Yamashita got the 3 jersey, but after spending almost the whole 2016 season starting at 3 for the Chiefs (I think it was to replace H Elliot?) he is experienced in New Zealand rugby. But was very surprised to see Jamie Henry at 14, I would’ve preferred a player within the top three options this late in the world cup cycle. If Tamura, Fukuoka, Lafaele and Tupou can fire and the rest of the squad can gel with them like they did for the Sunwolves when they ripped the Blues apart, I believe four tries is right in the picture.

  3. Kaito,

    Again I love how you are examining Japan but I do believe you are looking at the wrong game. Japan played their best rugby against France and if they executed better at times should have won the game. A large part of this was their structures. They are not perfect and their are still little things that can be done but just looking at the 26 second frame of the highlights of this match https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5m4WKDAvno found here you see the one person who is flat with the 9. A pod of three forwards behind that flat player and the out the back for the player who was the out the back and behind the flat for the 9. This structure makes it much harder to execute the rush defense which has been very very tough on offenses. You see this setup again at the 2:26 -2:27 mark but how the scrumhalf passes all the way to the out the back option of the forward pod. France could not get through to the runners freely as what happens in the 1-3-3-1 and if Japan executes this they will have much more success in the world cup. I have noticed they have not run these structures consistently since. You do see it a number of times for the sunwolves but I am so looking forward to seeing these structures pop up much more often. 4 forwards with an out the back behind them. I would call it the 1-4-2-1 and to honest it really causes that rush defense to stop getting through. Just saw this article on the website and never saw it on the app. Hope this all makes sense!


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