The Wallabies head to Yokohama on Saturday for a historic showdown with the Brave Blossoms of Japan.
It’s the first time the two sides have met on Japanese soil and should serve as an entree to the kind of atmosphere we can expect at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
For the Wallabies, it’s a chance to cleanse the palate between their stuttering performance against the Barbarians and the UK leg of the spring tour.
In team news, Michael Cheika has shuffled the deck again due to injury and absentees. Kurtley Beale gets first crack at fullback during Israel Folau’s sabbatical.
Reece Hodge steps into flyhalf with Bernard Foley ruled out due to illness. Nick Phipps starts courtesy of Will Genia’s calf strain.
The rest of the backline is an all-Fijian affair. Tevita Kuridrani returns at 13, with Samu Kerevi shifting inside, while Marika Koroibete and Henry Speight are on the wings.
Ned Hanigan is granted a stay of execution at flanker due to Jack Dempsey’s hamstring going AWOL for the foreseeable future.
Force lock Matt Philip is a potential debutant after a strong NRC campaign. He’s joined on the bench by Ben McCalman, Lopeti Timani, Joe Powell and Curtis Rona.
The home side are without Sunwolves flyer Akihito Yamada, but still boast plenty of experience ‒ seven of their World Cup stars, including Amanaki Mafi and Kotaro Matsushima, feature in the starting lineup.
Injuries in the second row have forced the inclusion of debutant Kazuki Himeno alongside Tongan-born Uwe Helu.
Meanwhile, promising playmaker Rikiya Matsuda has been given the nod at 10 ahead of Yu Tamura.
1. Scott Sio 2. Tatafu Polota-Nau 3. Sekope Kepu 4. Rob Simmons 5. Adam Coleman 6. Ned Hanigan 7. Michael Hooper (c) 8. Sean McMahon 9. Nick Phipps 10. Reece Hodge 11. Marika Koroibete 12. Samu Kerevi 13. Tevita Kuridrani 14. Henry Speight 15. Kurtley Beale.
Subs: 16. Stephen Moore 17. Tom Robertson 18. Allan Alaalatoa 19. Matt Philip 20. Ben McCalman 21. Lopeti Timani 22. Joe Powell 23. Curtis Rona.
1. Keita Inagaki 2. Shota Horie 3. Takuma Asahara 4. Kazuki Himeno 5. Uwe Helu 6. Michael Leitch (c) 7. Shunsuke Nunomaki 8. Amanaki Mafi 9. Fumiaki Tanaka 10. Rikiya Matsuda 11. Ryuji Noguchi 12. Harumichi Tatekawa 13. Timothy Lafaele 14. Lomano Lava Lemeki 15. Kotaro Matsushima.
Subs: 16. Atsushi Sakate 17. Koki Yamamoto 18. Asaeli Ai Valu 19. Wimpie van der Walt 20. Fetuani Lautaimi 21. Yutaka Nagare 22. Yu Tamura 23. Sione Teaupa.
With a new look backline, we could be in for yet another disjointed performance from the Wallabies. However, Cheika will be hoping for a far better showing than the Barbarians debacle last week.
Much will depend on the combination of Hodge and the often frantic Phipps, as well as the defensive shape of Kerevi and Kuridrani in midfield.
Japan are a growing force in world rugby, but they can’t dine out on that 2015 Springboks upset forever.
Their list of scalps in 2017 reads: Korea, Hong Kong, Romania. That’s it. They lost twice to Ireland in June and are fresh from a 47-27 loss to a World XV featuring Berrick Barnes, Digby Ioane and Vince Aso.
That said, they’ve got a great chance to show what they’re about here. Mafi is always a handful but, as Rebels fans will tell you, he can’t do it alone.
Ultimately, there’s enough power and flair in this Wallabies lineup to get the job done, even if the chemistry is lacking.
From a rugby perspective, I’d love to see Japan give them a scare, but it should be comfortable enough for the men in gold.
Wallabies by 20.