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Lemeki predicts Japan win vs Ireland if they can catch ball

Japan wing Lomano Lemeki boldly went where no player's gone before by publicly predicting their result against Ireland on Saturday in the Rugby World Cup. "We'll win 33-20," Lemeki said on Wednesday. "Why? Because we train hard and (Ireland flyhalf Jonathan) Sexton is not 100%."

Players rarely make predictions so as not to give the opposition ammunition but Lemeki was unfazed, even though he's never played Ireland. And even though Japan has never beaten the Irish in seven attempts, and never reached 30 against them let alone 33.

However, to the New Zealand-born wing of Tongan heritage, who became a Japan citizen in 2014 and played sevens at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the answer is simple. "I just need to do my best. As long as we can catch the ball it will be no problem," Lemeki said.

Catching the ball has been a big problem for Japan. It was a weakness South Africa preyed upon in their last warmup this month before the World Cup — a match Japan lost 41-7 — and by Russia last Friday in the opener, glaringly in the opening minutes.

Japan captain Michael Leitch dropped the kickoff, giving away the ball and territory, and fullback William Tupou completely missed a high ball under the lights at Tokyo Stadium, leading to Russia's try in the fifth minute. Nerves were stretched before Japan won 30-10.

Catching high balls has been a priority in practice since then. Russia heeded the lesson from South Africa, and Ireland will have learned from both. The Japanese anticipate a barrage of high balls from expert kickers Sexton and Conor Murray in Shizuoka.

"Just catch the ball," Lemeki urged his teammates. "Catch the high ball first of all, and if we catch it we can attack." Reserve flyhalf Rikiya Matsuda added: "We need to catch clinically, otherwise they will come into the game."

Hooker Shota Horie, who has played Ireland twice, agreed that if they can take high balls cleanly then they can trouble Ireland. "High balls are up to the backs, it's how we can help as forwards," Horie said.

"A lot of loose balls in the Russia game came from high kicks. (The backs) must have learned from that and they will field the balls better this time. As long as we get that sorted we believe we can win."

Win 33-20.

More AP Rugby World Cup: https://www.apnews.com/RugbyWorldCup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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