2019 Rugby World Cup Quarterfinal Preview
Japan vs South Africa
Venue: Tokyo Stadium in Chōfu, Tokyo.
Kick-off: 19h15 local; 10h15 GMT; 12h15 SA time
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Luke Pearce (England)
Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)
Intriguing game coming at us on Sunday!
The most popular team of the World Cup up against one of the pre-tournament favourites.
South Africa find themselves in a very strange world. They are the favourites to win a game, but have almost the whole world lined up against them! Favourites perhaps, but not favoured!
On Sunday, Japan will have the support far more than their 170-million fellow countrymen, but almost the entire rugby world will be on their side too.
The Springboks will take to the field to see the stands 99% full of red and white supporters, with a couple of patches of green here and there, and they will know that the crowd is against them from the very start.
The world relishes a David vs Goliath moment, and it is a quirk of human nature to immediately support David.
The crowd in the stands in Tokyo will not be 100% Japanese, there will be a fair smattering of spectators gathered from around the rugby world, but they will all be Japanese at 19h00 on the 20thOctober 2019, when the Springboks emerge from beneath the stands to take their place on the field.
It can be a hugely intimidating moment, an experience not wished upon your worst enemies.
Such a moment can break lesser men.
Yet, this is a Springbok team that has experienced hostile crowds before.
They have played in Wellington, New Zealand, they have played at Eden Park too. They know what it is like to be alone in front of antagonistic spectators, and they have overcome that hostility with a certain panache.
They have shown the mental fortitude to overcome the effect of a home crowd before, and they will need to dig into that experience again on Sunday.
Let me add, that such moments of hostility can also serve as a powerful binder, a glue that draws the players together as they link arms and face the world. It can make a team so much stronger too!
This Springbok team, under Rassie Erasmus, has shown that they play for each other as much as they play for their country. Their pride in the green and gold is inextricably linked to their pride and support for each other.
I have no doubt that the Springboks of 2019 are mentally strong enough for the challenge of playing Japan in Tokyo on Sunday.
There are those that suggest that the Springboks are at a psychological disadvantage in this game – not only are they the enemy in a hostile environment, but that they are carrying some kind of legacy mental barrier from that memorable defeat back in 2015.
Once again, I would suggest that is perhaps not the disadvantage some might believe. In 2015 South Africa were caught in the spiderweb of over-confidence, and benign indifference to the Japanese threat. Heyneke Meyer and his Springboks thought they simply had to pitch up in Brighton and the Japanese would roll over and kick their legs in the air in abject submission as Dad’s Army cantered to an easy bonus point victory.
There was a lesson learned that day, and it is a lesson that Rassie Erasmus has spoken of on various occasions, while many of the current Springboks have emphasized the lesson in their build-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
South Africa will be well aware of the Japanese threat!
Japan find themselves in a unique position.
They have emerged as the world at large’s favourite team for a variety of reasons. Their courage in the face of daunting odds, their selfless determination, their willingness to play quick open rugby, their commitment, their pride and focus on their cause. And then there is their style of play too! These are all factors that the fans have found endearing and have proven to one and all that rugby in Japan has come of age.
Japan are on the cusp of joining the top table of World Rugby, and being given Tier One status.
They thoroughly deserve it too.
Jamie Joseph is a very clever coach. He has realised that Japan do not have the behemoths that are found in the forward units of every other country. The biggest man in their squad is the 38-year-old Luke Thompson, and he is not really ranked amongst the bigger players in the tournament. He weighs in at just 108kg, and stretches the tape measure to just 1,96 meters, a short lock in the modern game.
Knowing that Japan cannot really hope to compete in the conventional style of winning collisions and then “earning the right to go wide” Jamie Joseph has drilled his team into avoiding those collisions and going wide at every single opportunity.
The instinct to go wide has the benefit of stretching the midfield defenders apart, which then allows Japan to play the quick ball back into the midfield where cracks have started to show. It is a quick, ball-in-hand style that is very attractive to watch, and it works against opponents who cannot stay with the pace of the Japanese runners.
This is the Japanese way – they take the ball from touchline to touchline, moving laterally as they look for the opportunity to break the defensive line in front of them and then run into space with quick passes and offloads to make life as difficult as possible for defenders.
This is in direct contrast to the Springbok game plan, which seeks to play a direct, powerful game up the middle, using their big forwards and midfielders to drive the ball into the collisions and then to play off that collision. The Springboks play the “earn the right to go wide” style I mentioned earlier.
The South Africans back this game plan with solid set-piece play and a kicking and chasing strategy designed to put pressure on the back three of their opponents.
When the Springbok machine clicks into gear, they are as good as any in the world, and better than most.
Some have suggested that the South Africans have a weakness in their finishing.
They do not score enough tries, we are told.
Let’s examine that for just the briefest of moments.
At the 2019 Rugby World Cup South Africa are the leading try scorers! They have scored 27 tries. Next best is New Zealand, on 22, followed by Australia on 20.
Ireland have scored 18, England, Wales, and Fiji are next with 17.
Japan have scored 13.
South Africa have given away just 36 points in the Pool stages, while Japan gave away 62. (23 of South Africa’s 36 points were coughed up against New Zealand.)
South Africa lead the points difference table with a positive +149, followed by New Zealand with a +135. England is the only other team that gets close to these two southern behemoths, with a +99 points difference.
Japan are on +53.
Whilst these are stats, and many rugby fans sneer at statistics, they are also an indicator of the relative strengths of the teams.
And they also tell us that there is nothing wrong with South Africa’s finishing. (Perhaps there is, they have certainly created plenty of opportunities to score and can perhaps be accused of not taking all their chances!)
This may be a David vs Goliath game, but it would need a Japanese performance of biblical magnitude to repeat the 2015 Miracle of Brighton.
Not that it is impossible, but it will not be easy!
Jamie Joseph has made just one change to his starting line-up for this quarter-final.
Ryohei Yamanaka, who started against Ireland but was on the bench for the last match against Scotland, runs out at full-back in place of William Tupou, who drops out of the 23.
Second-row Wimpie van der Walt and winger Lomano Lemeki return to the bench alongside number eight Amanaki Lelei Mafi, who is available for the first time since coming off injured against Ireland.
Second-row Uwe Helu and flanker Hendrik Tui miss out.
Prop Jiwon Koo starts at tighthead after coming off with a rib injury in the first half against Scotland.
Japan: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Michael Leitch (c), 5 James Moore, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Isileli Nakajima, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Wimpie van der Walt, 20 Amanaki Lelei Mafi, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Lomano Lava Lemeki
Rassie Erasmus is fairly predictable as a selector.
He has shown throughout 2019 that he has a firm idea of what his top match-day 23 looks like, and who are the supporting players in the wider squad.
The matchday squad for the Rugby World Cup quarter-final with Japan was as predictable as death and taxes.
Erasmus reverted to the same starting line-up and replacements that recorded a 49-3 victory over Italy a fortnight ago.
It means 13 changes to the run-on side from the one which concluded the Boks’ pool campaign with a 66-7 demolition of Canada in Kobe last Tuesday.
Only Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and Damian de Allende – who switches from outside centre back to the more familiar inside centre position – are retained from the Kobe starting XV.
Front-rowers Tendai Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi, as well as Lood de Jager all start, having been elevated to the XV from the one which lost against New Zealand in the opening match of the tournament.
The starting XV boasts 665 caps – the most in a Springbok team since the 2015 Rugby World Cup – when the squad included three Test centurions in Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana.
The team to meet Japan contains five players with 50 or more caps in Willie le Roux, Duane Vermeulen (who wins 50th cap as a number eight – a Springbok record), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth and centurion Mtawarira. There are another four players in the 40s in Kolisi, De Jager, De Allende and Handré Pollard.
12 of the starting XV – and 21 of the 23 – were in the team that overcame Japan six-tries-to-one (41-7) in Kumagaya, Japan, six weeks ago.
De Jager and prop Vincent Koch – who is on the bench – are the only two players who were not in the matchday 23 for the victory over Japan.
Erasmus again announced a six-two replacement split in favour of the forwards (rather than the traditional five-three), as was successfully deployed against the Azzurri.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Franco Mostert, 21 Francois Louw, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Frans Steyn
Two directly contrasting styles of rugby are likely to be seen in this game. South Africa playing the power game, somewhat slower and more disciplined and contained, while the Japanese will try and loosen the game up and play it as fast as possible. That is exactly what Japan did against Scotland, and it allowed them to get a good, defendable, lead on the scoreboard by halftime, a lead that ultimately won them the game. They caught the Scots napping with their quick recycling of the tackle ball and rapid clearance from the base of the rucks. They ran the Scots ragged, sucking them into trying to play the Japanese at their own game. It did not work at all for the men from the far northern reaches of the British Isles.
However, when Scotland started to play with a bit of brains and slowed the Japanese ball down at the breakdowns, while controlling their own possession and accuracy, the Japanese team started to creak.
One thing that became evident as the game moved into the final quarter was that the Japanese team were running on empty! They had shot their bolt in that hectic first half together with the frantic defending of the second half. A clearly fatigued Japan managed to keep the Scots at bay, but only just! It was sheer bravery, sheer courage, and the indomitable spirit of the Japanese team, buoyed by an emotional crowd, that carried them to that glorious victory.
Can they lift themselves to those heights for a second week on the trot?
Their entire game was fuelled by the emotion of playing for a country and people suffering under the hammer blows of Typhoon Hagibis, the vociferous support of the crowd, and the goal oriented focus on progressing to the playoffs. Those were tremendous motivators for the home side on that special day.
Now we must ask whether they can replicate that emotion, the passion, that commitment, and that focus for 80 minutes against the Springboks?
I have no doubt Jamie Joseph and his squad of coaches will have spent the week stressing the importance of keeping the ball away from the scrums and lineouts as much as is humanly possible. They will want to avoid the rucks and mauls and stretch the Springbok forwards by taking the ball out to the wings, looking to use their pace on the outside to try and tire the bigger men.
In contrast,South Africa will want to use the scrums, the lineouts, the mauls and rucks, the collisions, and the physically direct game to suck in the Japanese and to tire the Brave Blossoms as much as possible.
An interesting contrast in the styles of the two teams is found in their kicking strategy. Japan only kick to relieve pressure in the red zone, they make minimal use of tactical kicking during the game. Against Scotland, the first Japanese box-kick of the game only came around the 57th minute of the game!
South Africa have made ample use of a kicking strategy that focusses on landing the ball in the wider channels, with their quick wingers and loose forwards chasing to prevent the counter attack. When the scrumhalves box kicks have been on the money it has been an excellent strategy, but if those kicks are not pinpoint, they can provide for counterattacking opportunities! The Japanese team will surely have prepared for a possible aerial bombardment.
Japan will look continue with their quick passing game, with rapid passes from the tackles and breakdowns, using hand-to-hand offloads to keep the ball alive. South Africa will be looking to achieve tackle dominance to deliberately prevent that quick recycling. If South Africa can impose themselves in the loose phases, at breakdowns, collisions and tackles, this will suck the Japanese loose-forwards in from the wings where they enjoyed so much freedom of movement against the Scots. If South Africa’s physical game gets going, the Japanese loose trio will be forced to play off the back foot, and that draws some of the sting from their support play.
Anther interesting lesson from the Japan/Scotland encounter was the Japanese aversion to kicking the ball into touch. They did not want to take on the Scottish lineout, so they simply kept the ball infield. They may try and do the same against the Springboks. The Springboks have a hugely efficient lineout and a monstrous maul. They will want as many lineouts as possible.
In the end, this game will be about which team imposes their style on the game for the longest.
A final thought: The Bench.
South Africa has telegraphed their intent to play the power game for the full 80. They have six forwards on the bench, five of them tight forwards. Japan has five forwards and three backs. The message is clear, and Japan must be a little wary of the latter stages of the game, especially when they think back to their game against Scotland and the tired legs and cramps of those final minutes. The bench might well be the decider in this Test.
The quality of that Springbok bench is quite awesome, every one of the eight can start Test matches.
This game gives us much to ponder, but now it is time to end the thinking, make a call, and then wait for the kick-off on Sunday.
I have my doubts whether Japan can achieve the same level of passion and emotion on two consecutive weeks. It would require a super-human effort to repeat that performance. The game against Scotland may well have taken too much out of them.
The home side will start well, but the Springboks will grind them down, step by step, with the South African pack just carrying too much heavy artillery into the fray.