Michael Leitch dropped to bench as Japan names squad for Australia test

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Flanker Ben Gunter will make his national team debut in place of former captain Michael Leitch when 2019 Rugby World Cup host Japan faces Australia in Oita on Saturday.

Gunter, who was raised Australia, will partner with new captain Pieter Labuschagne and New Zealand-based Kazuki Himeno in the back row, with Leitch dropping to the bench.

Japan head coach Jamie Joseph said he was looking for loose forwards with the skills to “play the game at speed,” and described Gunter as a player “with potential.”

“Being Australian and representing Japan, playing against his countrymen will be something special for him,” Joseph said.

But the coach also said Leitch will have an important role to play coming off the bench.

“We’re going to need his experience and we’re going to need everybody if we’re going to win this test match,” Joseph said.

Rikiya Matsuda comes in to replace Yu Tamura at fly-half for Japan, which will only be playing its third match since the World Cup two years ago. The match in Oita will be Japan’s first at home since losing to South Africa in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Gunter is the only new cap in the starting lineup, but wing Siosaia Fifita, fullback Semisi Masirewa and lock Jack Cornelsen all made their debuts this year.

Japan lost to the British and Irish Lions and Ireland on a summer tour to Europe.

World Cup scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare returns after missing those games for personal reasons.

Labuschagne takes over from Leitch as captain, and Joseph said the South Africa-born flanker was already making an impression.

“He’s finding his way,” Joseph said. “I’m sure he’ll show by his performance the style of leader he will be.”

Hunter Paisami has been recalled for Australia, replacing Samu Kerevi at inside center after the explosive midfielder failed to recover from an ankle injury in time for Saturday’s clash.

Tom Wright has replaced Jordan Petaia on the wing after a lively cameo off the bench in a 32-17 win over Argentina three weeks ago.

Rob Leota slots in at blindside flanker, pushing Pete Samu to the bench, while lock Matt Philip has been promoted to partner with Izack Rodda in the second row in the other change to Dave Rennie’s starting lineup.

Since leaving the squad for the birth of his daughter, Paisami has had to bide his time as he waited to break back into the side, with Kerevi in dominant form through most of the Rugby Championship.

“He’ll play his own game, he’s explosive and powerful,” Rennie said of the Queensland Reds player.

“Not a whole lot changes really … We think it will be seamless.”

ACT Brumbies hooker Connal McInerney will hope to make his test debut off the bench, having replaced Lachlan Lonergan as Rennie continues to experiment with players at the Wallabies’ most vexing position.

“Connal’s strong set piece and all-around game has earned him a chance to represent his country, which is a proud moment for him and his family,” Rennie said.

Tighthead prop Allan Alaalatoa returns to the squad in place of Greg Holmes.

Australia will be vying for its fifth straight win on Saturday after finishing the Rugby Championship with back-to-back victories over both the Pumas and world champion South Africa.

The Wallabies then head to Britain for November tests against Scotland, England and Wales, but have not worked out whether they will have Japan-based flyhalf Quade Cooper, Kerevi and loose forward Sean McMahon due to the players’ club requirements.

“We’re trying to come to a resolution that suits everyone,” said Rennie.

Though Kerevi missed out for Saturday, Rennie said the Fiji-born midfielder would be fit for Scotland at Murrayfield on Nov. 8 if made available.

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