Boks hot favourites but must still bring their A-game
The main contributing factor to South Africa’s defeat at the hands of Japan in the 2015 Rugby World Cup opener in Brighton was touched on by the colossal Springbok lock, Lood de Jager, at a press conference this week.
“We are very well-prepared for this game whereas we weren’t well-prepared for the game in Brighton,” said De Jager with a little chortle that may have emphasised just how badly prepared the Boks were in the first ever meeting between the two nations that will clash in Sunday’s World Cup quarterfinal at Tokyo Stadium.
“That is not to say that Japan did not play well that day. They played very well and they deserved to win the game.”
COMPLACENCY CONTRIBUTED TO BRIGHTON DEFEAT
They did indeed, but Bok complacency contributed in no small part to one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, if not the biggest. Fourie du Preez recalled in a book interview earlier this year how concerned he was in the build-up week to that game that the coaches and his teammates weren’t taking Japan seriously enough.
“I had played in Japan, I knew they were a very capable team and they deserved a lot more respect than we gave them. I also knew Eddie Jones, their coach, very well. We lost that game because, like the rest of world rugby, we underestimated Japan and didn’t respect them,” said Du Preez.
If you speak to some of the other Springboks involved in that game, or who were in the squad at the time, they’d tell you that the preparation for that tournament as a whole wasn’t great, perhaps because there were too many injured players who had to be nursed by the then coach Heyneke Meyer.
The current coach, Rassie Erasmus, who was involved in the 2011 campaign as Peter de Villiers’ technical adviser, said this week that he encountered the same problem in the World Cup before that.
“Being in a situation as I am now where we just every now and then have a maximum of maybe one or two guys not being able to train is new for me at a World Cup and one of the things we have worked towards this year is to get the right balance between experience and guys who may not be as experienced but are fit and in good form,” said Erasmus.
BOKS KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT THIS TIME
And that really in a nutshell is why the Boks should be expected to bury the ghost of Brighton once and for all on Sunday by scoring the emphatic victory they should have four years ago. They know what to expect this time, Japan are no longer an unknown factor. And most importantly, the Boks are showing them respect.
The warm-up game in Kumagaya, won 41-7 by the Boks, was also very convenient towards eroding any possible psychological block the South Africans might have felt regarding their 2015 nemesis (although the Boks did go on to play in the semifinal of that World Cup, the Japan defeat determined the negative narrative).
“It definitely helps that we played against Japan five weeks ago. We now know what they are about and we have been able to prepare accordingly,” said De Jager.
The caveat of course is that the conditions the game will be played in on Sunday should be very different to the game in early September, where the oppressive humidity possibly played into the hands of the Bok kicking game and aggressive defensive system. As the Boks have all noted when they’ve gone in front of the media individually this week, there has been evolution in the Japanese attacking game since then.
Japan did handle the conditions in Kumagaya better because they were more used to them, but their attacking wasn’t allowed to be as outrageously adventurous as what they produced this past Sunday night against Scotland. Presented with dry conditions and little in the way of humidity to impact on their handling, Japan were nothing short of sublime when it came to their passing and handling, the switches of direction and the other innovations that had Scotland chasing shadows in the first half at Yokohama Stadium.
There are no prizes for guessing what the Japan approach will be on Sunday – they will try to wear their bigger opponents down with an all-action, all-encompassing and all-inclusive playing style. They will look to play the game at a frenetic pace.
RASSIE HAS MADE THE RIGHT CALL
But the Boks are not Scotland, and Erasmus, if you listen to his reasoning, has made the right call in opting for a six/two split between forwards and backs on the bench. That telegraphs an intention to repeat the sustained forward aggression, physicality and intensity over 80 minutes that buried Italy two weeks ago in Shizuoka and, as Erasmus says, also to blunt the Japan intent to wear down the tight forwards and punch holes around them late in both halves.
A lot has been said of the Japanese tempo and it has had an impact on their opponents so far. Ireland, playing in oppressive heat and humidity in Shizuoka in week two, were worn down to the extent that they just weren’t present towards the end of that game. Japan would have won by more had there been more minutes to run.
Interestingly though it was Japan who were looking stretched towards the end of the game against Scotland, who you could argue are more like a southern hemisphere team in their approach than a northern hemisphere team. And it would be surprising if deep down Japan coach Jamie Joseph didn’t have his doubts about his team’s ability to do to a southern hemisphere team like South Africa, who play New Zealand and Australia regularly at international level and who are a team made up of players mostly drawn from Super Rugby, what they have been able to do to northern opposition.
JAPANESE FRENETICISM MIGHT NOT WORK AGAINST SOUTHERN OPPONENTS
Japan were particularly frenetic against Scotland, who play the style that Japan should enjoy playing against, but did it nearly trip them up in the end? Japan are a super-fit team but even the best conditioned team can risk running themselves off their own feet with the type of rugby they played last week.
This isn’t likely to be a game where Japan get too much opportunity to stamp their own tempo and authority on their opponents. The Boks know Japan too well now and while Joseph and Tony Brown are sure to come up with some innovation that will make it interesting, the South Africans will play to their strength and not repeat the mistake of 2015.
They should be too physical for Japan, but what is different now from four years ago is that they know they do need to bring their A game if they are going to be sure of victory. This time it was Duane Vermeulen who said it: “We know what to expect and maybe we are better equipped to deal with what Japan will throw at us than other teams are, but we still have to go out and do it.”
The Boks aren’t complacent this time, they know they need to bring accuracy to parts of their game where it lacked against New Zealand. It’s why we should expect them to still be here next week.
Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka, Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Kenki Fukuoka, Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare, Kazuki Himeno, Lappies Labuschagne, Michael Leitch (captain), James Moore, Luke Thompson, Jiwon Koo, Shota Horie, Keita Inagaki. Replacements: Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Wimpie van der Walt, Amanaki Lelei Mari, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Lomano Lava Lemeki.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn
Kick-off: 12:15pm SA time
Prediction: Boks to win by 15