Japan and Samoa fight for their World Cup survival
Japan and Samoa face off in the "death zone" in Toulouse on Thursday, both knowing that defeat will leave their World Cup hopes hanging by a thread and that even victory might ultimately not be enough.
Samoa are second in Group D, nine points behind leaders England and ahead of Japan on points differential, but a victory without a bonus points could allow Argentina, who face the group's whipping boys Chile on Saturday, to jump to second with one round of games to go.
In the last round, Japan face Argentina before Samoa face in-form England, a team they have never beaten.
"This Samoa game is a very important one for us," Kazuki Himeno, the Japan captain told a press conference speaking in Japanese on Tuesday. "But in this death zone, we knew this was coming."
For the game in Toulouse on Thursday, Japan start four players who also started victories over Samoa in the last two World Cups: hooker Shota Horie, prop Keita Inagaki, flanker Michael Leitch and winger Kotaro Matsushima.
Japan won 26-5 in Milton Keynes in 2015. The Brave Blossoms also beat South Africa that year, but, despite winning three games out of four, finished third in the group because they picked up no bonus points.
- 'Better squad' -
In 2019, on home soil in Toyota, they beat Samoa 38-19, with Matsushima scoring the bonus-point try in the 80th minute.
That was bracketed by wins over Ireland and Scotland as Japan reached the quarter-finals for the first time.
"We beat Ireland such a long time ago," said coach Jamie Joseph on Tuesday. "This tournament is completely different."
Samoa's World Cup arc has curved in the other direction.
As Western Samoa, they reached the quarter-finals in the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991.
In 1995, Samoa thrashed Japan 43-9 in Wrexham. But ended up second in the group on points differential to hosts Wales who beat Japan 64-15. With the World Cup experimenting with five groups of four for its first 20-team competition, Samoa went into a quarter-final playoff which they lost to Scotland.
Since then, Manu Samoa has not advanced from the group stage, but changes to player eligibility rules, encouraged optimism this time.
"I feel they have a much better squad than they did at the last World Cup," said Joseph.
Manu Samoa delivered a message in Sapporo in July when they beat Japan 24-22.
"We have seen an improvement in the Japanese team and an improvement in our own team" said Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua. "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."
Japan's Lomano Lemeki, coming in at full back for the injured Semisi Masirewa, said he hopes Samoa repeat the mistakes they made as they lost their last match 19-10 to Argentina.
"I think they could have won if they had kicked better. They used the forwards too much," Lemeki said.
Samoa captain Chris Vui agreed Samoa had wasted chances against Argentina.
"They just need to give me the ball!" he said. "From last week we just need to finish our sets off."
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