France will look to begin their World Cup in style against a Japanese side ranked 13th in the world. The French cannot afford to slip up against easier opponents in Pool A as the looming presence of the All Blacks later in pool play denies Les Blues easy access to a quarterfinal spot, but arguably have an easier game than the hosts to warm into the competition. Japan will look to consolidate their reputation as a rising star in world rugby with a competitive performance; though they are not expected to seriously threaten a French team searching for higher honours, they bring significant momentum from an impressive season in the Pacific and will want to carry this through pool play.
Fabien Barcella starts at prop after a year on the sidelines, while hooker Dimitri Szarzewsko is relegated to the bench in a French starting pack that on paper dominates their much smaller opposition. The experienced Dimitri Yachvili returns to the starting scrumhalf role on the back of good club form, replacing Six Nations incumbent Morgan Parra, and will look to push his claims for a starting position with a creative performance alongside Francois Trinh-Duc. Outside the halves France field a strong indicator of Lievremont’s preferred starting line-up, with Toulouse team-mates Vincent Clerc, Maxime Medard and old hand Cedric Heymans forming a potent attacking trio outside an experienced central pairing.
John Kirwan fields a Japanese team with a strong Kiwi flavour upon his return to Eden Park with five starting players returning to New Zealand. Other than captain Takashi Kikutani, only lock Luke Thompson retains his place from the final warm-up game; promising flanker Michael Leich claims the competitive open-side flank spot. James Arlidge returns to Auckland with unfinished business at Eden Park and will organise an experienced backline that includes dual wings Kosuke Endo and Hirotoki Onozawa, both of which scored spectacular tries in France 2007.
Players to watch:
Young World Cup bolter Raphael Lakafia starts at No. 8 and his physical approach at the back of a solid pack could be the catalyst for an impressive attacking performance.
Shaun Webb may be the only outside back not to make the highlight reel in 2007, but he will be tested thoroughly on his return to New Zealand shores as the last line of defence and will look to impress.
France XV: 1. Fabien Barcella, 2. William Servat, 3. Nicolas Mas, 4. Julien Pierre, 5. Lionel Nallet, 6. Thierry Dusautoir (c), 7. Imanol Harinordoquy, 8. Raphael Lakafia, 9. Dimitri Yachvili, 10. Francois Trinh-Duc, 11. Maxime Medard, 12. Fabrice Estebanez, 13. Aurelien Rougerie, 14. Vincent Clerc, 15. Cedric Heymans.
Substitutes: 16. Jean-Baptiste Poux, 17. Dimitri Szarzewski, 18. Pascal Pape, 19. Julien Bonnaire, 20. Morgan Parra, 21. David Skrela, 22. David Marty.
Japan XV: 1. Hisateru Hirashima, 2. Shota Horie, 3. Kensuke Hatakeyama, 4. Luke Thompson, 5 Toshizumi Kitagawa, 6. Takashi Kikutani (c), 7. Michael Leitch, 8. Ryukoliniasi Holani, 9. Fumiaki Tanaka, 10. James Arlidge, 11. Hirotoki Onozawa, 12. Ryan Nicholas, 13. Koji Taira, 14. Kosuke Endo, 15. Shaun Webb.
Substitutes: 16. Yusuke Aoki, 17. Nozomu Fujita, 18. Hitoshi Ono, 19. Itaru Taniguchi, 20. Atsushi Hiwasa, 21. Murray Williams, 22. Alisi Tupuailai.