Matsushima 'can't wait' for Japan return after Top 14 run-in

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Japan full-back Kotaro Matsushima said on Thursday he "can't wait" to return to the Test scene after a potentially busy end to the Top 14 season with Clermont which starts by hosting La Rochelle this weekend.

The Brave Blossoms last played at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, a quarter-final defeat by winners South Africa. The international season after that was severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Jamie Joseph's side, however, are set to face domestic team the Sunwolves, the British and Irish Lions, and Ireland in June and July.

Matsushima will miss Japan's first ever fixture against the Lions if his French club reach the Top 14 final, scheduled a day before the game at Murrayfield.

"It's been long since I last played so I'm very excited. I can't wait to play against the Lions and if I can't play against the Lions then it will be Ireland," the 28-year-old told AFP.

"It's going to be a big step up for Japan," he added.

Matsushima's fifth-placed Clermont will book a play-off spot if they beat second-placed La Rochelle on Saturday.

"My motivation for the end of the season is going to be really high for me if I win or lose," he said.

"Personally I'll still be motivated to play the Lions or in the quarter-final or semi-final of the Top 14. That won't change my mind in a bad way," he added.

The former Suntory Sungoliath three-quarter is one of just a handful of Japanese players to have featured in France's lucrative top league after the likes of former full-back Ayumu Goromaru and hooker Takeshi Hino.

"I'd like to see more. Like Kazuki Himeno, the No 8. He would be good here. He's physical and good enough to play in the Top 14," Matsushima said of the forward currently turning out for the Highlanders in Super Rugby.

"Lots of guys can play in the Top 14, they just need to get more chances.

"A couple of our boys in the forwards are physical enough to play here. I think it would be a good thing for Top 14 and Japan."

- Impress future coach Gibbes -

This weekend, Matsushima and his team-mates will face future coach Jono Gibbes.

The former New Zealand back-rower will leave La Rochelle at the end of the season to replace Franck Azema at Stade Marcel-Michelin.

"Lots of boys will play well because of the new coach," Matsushima joked.

"For us, it's a really big game so we get into the top six. We can't lose this game," he added.

La Rochelle and leaders Toulouse, who head to Bordeaux-Begles, have 77 points and will secure semi-final berths if they claim more than a point.

Only third-placed Racing 92, on 73 points, can stop those two sides from reaching the last four directly.

Toulon, Stade Francais and Castres are also battling Clermont as well fourth-placed Bordeaux-Begles and Racing for a place in the play-offs.

At the other end of the table Elton Jantjies' Pau must beat Handre Pollard's Montpellier and hope Bayonne claim no more than a point at home against Stade Francais.

Fixtures (all 1905GMT)

Saturday

Clermont v La Rochelle, Lyon v Agen, Bayonne v Stade Francais, Pau v Montpellier, Bordeaux-Begles v Toulouse, Racing 92 v Brive, Castres v Toulon

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