2019 Rugby World Cup Quarterfinal Review

Sunday 20thOctober

Quarterfinal 4.

Japan vs South Africa

Venue: Tokyo Stadium in Chōfu, Tokyo.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Luke Pearce (England)
Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)

It is not my habit to listen to the nodding heads of the “experts” in the studio after a rugby match. Perhaps the only one that I listen to from time to time is Nick Mallett, his knowledge and understanding of the game of rugby is superior to most, and certainly way ahead of the rest of those “experts” collectively.

After the quarterfinal Test match between South Africa and Japan I neglected to turn off the sound or to change channels on my television as I went through to our kitchen to prepare a well-deserved cup of coffee for myself and my good wife. (It was way too early in the day to pull a cork from a bottle of red wine..)

Mine is a Ristretto and hers a Volluto. I like it toe-curlingly strong, while she prefers something much milder.

As I waited for the machine to express our coffees, the studio panel started to discuss the game. I could not help hearing them.

Now I have long been more than a little critical of the so-called “experts” who sit on that panel. 

Most are ex-players who have not shown a remarkable ability with the spoken word, nor have they shown in depth understanding of the minutiae of the Laws of the Game. Logic is a less-than strong point too. They may have been great players, in their positions and with a rugby ball to concentrate on. Some were great leaders, some are nice guys too, but off the field they do not fill me with intellectual awe.

Some are almost tongue-tied when asked to express an opinion, muttering and mumbling obfuscation, while other express opinions that are simply wholly and utterly incorrect. Most of them simply repeat each other.

And so it was on Saturday.

The panel consisted of the doyen of kicking flyhalves, Naas Botha, together with Jean de Villiers, Schalk Burger, Gcobani Bobo from South Africa and an international fullback, Scott Spedding of France. 

Fine rugby payers one and all. Perhaps even the best in the world in their position at one time or another?

However, their knowledge of the Laws of the game were cruelly exposed as my coffee brewed. They discussed the incident in the dying moments of the first half when Damian de Allende crossed over for what seemed to be a legitimate try.

Referee Wayne Barnes instinctively penalised the Springbok for not releasing the ball in the tackle and crawling over the line.

The staggering lack of knowledge of the studio panel was revealed as they, one and all, lectured us on how De Allende was in the wrong as he had a knee of the ground! One of our highly paid panellists even said “When his knee and the tackler’s knee are both on the ground, he has to release the ball.”

They communally agreed that referee Barnes had made a very good decision!

Really?

Let’s start with what the Law says:

Law 14. Tackle

Requirements For A Tackle

  1. For a tackle to occur, the ball-carrier is held and brought to ground by one or more opponents. 
  2. Being brought to ground means that the ball-carrier is lying, sitting or has at least one knee on the ground or on another player who is on the ground. 
  3. Being held means that a tackler must continue holding the ball-carrier until the ball- carrier is on the ground.

Now go and watch the television replay of that incident.

Damian de Allende was clearly not held and brought down in the tackle. He gets knocked off balance, tripped if you like, and goes to ground with one knee briefly, but he is clearly not brought to ground by one or more of his opponents, as required by Law 14.1.

And then he is certainly not held in the tackle as is required by Law 14.3.

Quite simply, Wayne Barnes erred in making that decision. He also erred in not referring the incident to his TMO for a review.

If he had done so, South Africa would have gone into the half-time shed with the score at least 10-3, possibly even 12-3 as the score was almost under the posts and even on his worst day Handré Pollard was not likely to miss the kick.

Plainly, the nodding heads in the studio have not read the Law with regard to the tackle.

Not that it mattered much in the end.

Whilst this was not a pretty game of rugby at all, from a spectator’s view it was probably the least attractive game of the four quarterfinals, it was a brutally efficient display of the Springboks booking their place in the semifinals.

In my preview to this game I suggested that Jamie Joseph is a very clever coach and that he knew that the only way his team could tame the Springbok behemoth was to take the ball wide as often as possible and to play a quick-hands and quick-feet game and to try and outpace the Springboks.

We knew that the Japanese would play the ball from touchline to touchline, moving laterally as they sought an opportunity to break forwards when a crack or two appeared in the defensive alignment facing them.

This is what they did to Ireland, and then most efficiently to Scotland a week ago.

Jamie Joseph and his quiet assistant Tony Brown had tweaked the playbook too. They added cross-field kicks and kick-passes, they added chip kicks and dinks over the top. They even added a box-kick or two. Every tactic designed to add variety and cause the Springboks pain.

It was Japan playing Scotland, plus plus.

A week ago, in a magnificent first half, Japan ran Scotland ragged. Every pass,  every offload, every step and jink, every bounce of the ball worked in Japan’s favour as the Scots seemed a little nonplussed by the unconventional style of Japanese rugby.

Sadly, that simply wasn’t the case this time. 

This time they were up against a team that defends the spaces with infinitely more speed and aggression. Probably the best defensive unit in the world today.

Japan did not stop trying, but they were battering themselves silly against an unrelenting wall of green. Where things had clicked against Scotland, they found that they had to work infinitely harder to retain possession and gain ground against an unrelenting defensive onslaught by the physically bigger Springboks.

Despite being reduced to 14 men for 10 minutes when the Beast got a little over-excited, the Springbok wall held. During a first half that saw Japan with 80% of the possession, the home team managed just 3 points.

During that time the Springboks managed to score a try, and have one denied by a refereeing error, whilst also butchering three other opportunities. One when Willie le Roux somehow could not hold onto a pass from Cheslin Kolbe with a clear run to the line ahead of him, and another, in the 25thminute, when Lukhanyo Am was unable to cling to an interception with nobody at home for Japan at the back. He had both Kolbe and Mapimpi ranging up in support in the wider channels.

Earlier Lukhanyo Am had also butchered an offload to Mapimpi with the wing clear and the line looming. Just a tiny bit more accuracy, and it was another try for the winger.

Perhaps the overriding image of the first half was the number of dominant tackles made by the Springboks. They did not just tackle the ball carrier, they smashed into him with serious intent and that, at the end of the day, was probably the aspect of their game that did the most damage to the Japanese effort.

Have no doubt, Japan competed with the spirit of the samurai. They kept hammering at the Springboks, no matter how many times they were repelled, physically abused almost. 

It was not pretty, but it was very brave. By both teams!

Sadly though, as the Springbok machine smothered them, the accuracy started to go out of the Japanese game, and by halftime the writing was on the wall, despite the closeness of the score at 5-3.

A word on the Beast. 

The way this tournament has been managed by the match officials, Tendai Mtawarira was, perhaps, lucky not to be shown a red card after 10 minutes for his spear tackle on Keita Inagaki.

Then again Kotaro Matsushima was equally lucky after he had made contact with Makazole Mapimpi in the air, with that contact being to the chin and throat of the South Africa. Matsushima had also escaped sanction earlier with a head high tackle on the same Mapimpi. Once again, when Mapimpi scored his second try, Matsushima went in high on the tackle, although this moment was perhaps ignored as the try was scored.

Perhaps the lack of a red for the Beast was evened out by no cards for Matsusshima?

The Power of the Springbok Pack

The second half was one-way traffic. 

Ugly, yes. 

It was not pretty rugby as the Springboks simply clicked up a gear or two in accuracy, refused to get sucked into a wide game against opponents who could punish inaccuracies, and went back to their game plan.

There are many that are bemoaning the way South Africa played this game, some saying that they are going to get a hiding if they play like this against Wales, England or New Zealand. 

I would remind those naysayers that this was a game plan designed and developed and then implemented to take out Japan, not to take out Wales or England or New Zealand. In the last two years South Africa have shown that they know how to play New Zealand and beat them. Even the opening game of Pool B showed a Springbok team that matched the New Zealanders blow for blow, except for a brief 7-minute period in the 1sthalf. One missed kick and one poor pass was all that stood between the two teams on that day.

The Springboks produced brutally efficient forward rugby that sent a message to world – this is how you beat Japan.

The sheer power of the Springboks was simply too much for the Japanese in the tight exchanges, in the collisions, and over the ball.

Twice, early in the second half, Japan were penalised at scrums and twice Pollard goaled to make the score 11-3, and then it became something of a forgone conclusion.

The Japanese were tiring, and their confidence had taken a massive knock when they could not find a way through the Springbok defences despite having as much ball as they could handle, and now the Springbok machine was starting to grind them into the pitch.

Once again, inaccuracy cost the Springboks try scoring opportunities. Hands let them down at critical moments. The advancing ball was stripped in the tackle twice! I did not catch the number of the player who stripped the ball from Eben Etzebeth, but he should have a t-shirt printed that says “I stripped the ball off Eben!”He is one of very few that can wear that on their chest!

Pieter-Steph du Toit had a clear run-in into the right corner but for a forward pass by Willie le Roux.

In another moment of sublime rugby, a pinpoint cross-kick by Handré Pollard found Willie le Roux out wide, and his beautifully timed tap down to Siya Kolisi was impeccable. The try was on, but the captain’s hand let him down and he could not hold onto the tap down!

At the end of the day, this was an entirely predictable game, and result.

Japan would throw everything they had, including the kitchen sink at South Africa, and then they would start to run out of steam.

In my preview I said: 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.”

And so it was.

It was not pretty, in fact it was often dour, but there was an inevitability about it all.

Before we end: 

Thank you Japan. 

You were brave, you were passionate, you were fun too, and most of all, you were entertaining! You are welcome to a seat at the top table of rugby. 

Individual Player Assessments

South Africa

15 Willie le Roux 4/10

I am an unabashed fan of Willie le Roux when he is on form. He was not on form in this game. He took a knee to the head fairly early in the proceedings, and I wondered whether he should have gone off for an HIA as he seemed dazed, and it reflected in much of what he did in the rest of the first half. He seemed to be playing in some kind of fog. However, he improved in the second half, although there were still unforgivable inaccuracies at times. He was solid on defence.

14 Cheslin Kolbe 5/10

One of those games where the ball hardly ever got anywhere near him, so he had a quiet game by his standards. He was well policed by his opposite number Kenki Fukuoka, but that did not stop him from looking for work. Some great work at the breakdowns.

13 Lukhanyo Am 6/10

Some truly superb reads on defence, shutting down Japanese attacks at source. Great work over the ball in the tackle, with one very good steal. Not at his best with ball in hand, with a silly offload robbing the team of a certain try.
A tiny bit more composure when he intercepted a ball in the first half, and a try scoring opportunity was on – there was nobody at home for Japan! 

12 Damian de Allende 9/10

My Man of the Match. Massive day as the mainstay of the defensive effort, clattering into red and white jerseys with bone-crunching tackles. Impressive too, in the way he stayed in the tackle and converted dominance into a ruck over the ball time and again. The back-tackle on a flying Kenki Fukuoka showed his pace too. Made a crucial turnover in the first half when Japan were threatening.  Got over the gainline, with a valuable meters made, to create front-foot ball for his support players. Lost the ball in the tackle once, and was penalised for obstructive running off the ball when he got his timing all wrong, with a potential try scoring opportunity opening up. Those blemishes aside, it was a huge display by the man.

11 Makazole Mapimpi 7/10

Lethal finishing as is his trademark, with two excellent tries. Made 116 metres with the ball in hand. His defence was also a step up from previous weeks as he shut down Japan’s dangermen time and again. Now joint top-scorer at this Rugby World Cup with 5 tries. Could have had six, or even seven if some passes had gone to hand.

10 Handré Pollard 6/10

Controlled the defence with aplomb in the first half, and then took the game by the scruff of its neck in the second as he kept the ball in front of his forwards with clever kicks and accurate passing. Good in the air too. Struggled a bit off the tee.

9 Faf de Klerk 7/10

Yes, I know there are a host of whingers that do not like his box-kicking. I am one of them, but I do not like the box-kick as a matter of principle! But he is playing to instructions, and it works almost all the time. Even when the Japanese receivers caught the ball (whilst well protected by a wall of players “holding their line”) the kicks caused them to have to come back from deep, which played right into the Springbok game plan.  If you do not like it, send Rassie a Whatsapp message.Where Faf was outstanding was in his terrier-like disruption of the Japanese halfbacks and midfield when they had the ball in hand. He tackled everything that moved, even Michael Leitch in full flight! That blindside move to set up Mapimpi’s try was superb. That control, communication, and support of the maul that set up his own try was superb.

Faf de Klerk is playing to instructions, and he is doing what the team wants him to do. And, boy, is he a nuisance to his opponents. Period.

8 Duane Vermeulen 7/10

There are a couple of Japanese players nursing bruises after running into  Duane Vermeulen. Fullback Yamanaka will not forget his collision with Thor quickly. Massive presence in the defensive game. Took control and marshalled the forces well when Siya Kolisi left the field temporarily following Tendai Mtawarira’s yellow card. Controlled the back of the lineout and the base of the scrum properly.

7 Pieter-Steph du Toit 7/10

For once, his pace to the breakdown was sometimes just too quick! Overran the tackle opportunity on a couple of occasions, and missed a tackle or two as a result.  Uncompromising tackles and carries, although limited opportunities in this game. Robbed of a try by a poor pass.  A great lineout steal at the front after he took over the 2-jumper role when Etzebeth was subbed. 

6 Siyamthanda Kolisi 8/10

Probably his best game of 2019 as he has found the fitness, pace, and form that made him such a formidable player earlier this year. Huge tackle count, one memorable triple-tackle. Hit so many rucks that he seemed to be a machine. Made the rip which led to Mapimpi’s second try.

5 Lodewyk de Jager 7/10

Great form and superb work rate  all over the field. Plenty of muscle in the scrums and mauls, and did sterling work in the lineouts. Great lineout steals.

Some really aggressive defending.

4 Eben Etzebeth 6/10

Did what he does best. Disrupted the Japanese lineouts, tackled aggressively, carried with power, and was the muscle in the engine room. Was somehow dispossessed in one drive. Had his legs taken by a couple of chop-tackles.

3 Frans Malherbe 7/10

A big game in the engine room, and then made some smashing tackles. Great support play in the mauls. His commitment to capturing the loose ball was illustrated by one massive dive to secure a rolling ball. It was a good day at the office for the quiet man.

2 Bongi Mbonambi 6/10

Only on the field for 36 minutes before he was replaced by Malcolm Marx. Made some massive tackles in his time on the field, and scrummed powerfully. Lineouts were spot on, as usual. We hope his injury is not serious.

Tendai Mtawarira: 6/10

Can a player get too fired up? I think not and it was good to see the passion and commitment of the veteran warhorse. Massive power in the scrums. Perhaps a little lucky it was only a yellow for that spear tackle? Huge tackle on Michael Leitch.

 

Replacements:

16 Malcolm Marx 8/10 (On for Bongi Mbonambi, 36th min)

He is back! Made a massive impact when he took over from Bongi. Carried with power and aggression, tackles with the same aggression. Some massive cleanouts. Great maul management.

17 Steven Kitshoff 7/10 (On for Tendai Mtawarira, 54th min)

When the Beast goes off and the Big Ginge comes on, it does not get any easier in the scrums, it gets harder. He simply crunched his opponents in every scrum. Made some huge tackles too. Not as many carries as we have come to expect, but it was not that kind of game for him.

18 Vincent Koch 6/10 (On for Frans Malherbe, 54th min)

Maintained the front row dominance established by Malherbe, carried well, tackled well. Great support in the mauls. 

19 Rudolph Snyman 5/10 (On for Eben Etzebeth, 63rd min)

Oddly quiet and uninvolved. He did not make much of an impact in open play.


20 Franco Mostert 6/10 (On for Franco Mostert, 67th min)

Covered plenty of ground and made some big hits, good supporting role in the mauls.

21 Francois Louw (On for Duane Vermeulen, 68th min)

His nuisance value is immense. He did not allow the Japanese anywhere near the ball on the ground, and made a couple of big hits too.

22 Herschel Jantjies (On for Faf de Klerk, 74th min)

Not really enough time to be rated.

23 Frans Steyn (On for Cheslin Kolbe, 72nd min)

Not enough time to be rated.

Japan.

15. Ryohei Yamanaka5/10

Not as much influence as he has had in other games. Was pinned back deep in his own back yard by South Africa’s kicking strategy. Was caught with the ball too often.

14. Kotaro Matsushima 4/10

Was not given the space he enjoys, although he tried hard. Fairly good on defence, although lucky to avoid a card on two occasions, perhaps even a third when Mapimpi scored his second. Good under the high ball, though well protected by runners “holding their line.”

13. Timothy Lafaele5/10

Some slick handling, but was shut down too easily by the Springboks, who also isolated him from his wings. Missed some tackles. 

12. Ryoto Nakamura 4/10

Containing Damian de Allende kept him very busy. In turn he was shut down by the big Springbok, as well as by Faf de Klerk on a couple of occasions. Seemed to vanish from the game the longer it went on.

11. Kenki Fukuoka 4/10

Just did not get the chance to showcase his speed and footwork. Was shut down by the Springboks too easily. Was run down from behind by Damian de Allende when one expected him to go clear.

10. Yu Tamura 3/10

A nightmare start, that got worse. His early cross-kick was short and inaccurate, and could have been trouble if the Springboks had been a little more awake. Then there was a forward pass and then he missed the tackle on Makazole Mapimpi for South Africa’s first try. All of that in the first 4=5 minutes. That set the tone for an underwhelming display. 

9 Yutaka Nagare 6/10

Did his best to build pressure in the first half, and his speed to the breakdown was exceptional. But found himself getting tied down by the attentions of Faf de Klerk. 

8 Kazuki Himeno 5/10

Made some good tackles, but was also tackled out of the game. Became increasingly invisible as the clock ticked on. 

7 Pieter Labuschagne 6/10

Spent the day defending and being tackled. Not his most influential game.

6 Michael Leitch 7/10 (captain)

Never stopped trying, and trying, and trying. Spent too much time getting involved in verbals as he tried to rattle some of the Springboks or questioned the referee’s decisions. Was the lynchpin in the Japanese lineout.  

5 James Moore 4/10

Plenty of tackles, but that was about it. One marginally high hit with a hint of no arms, but not punished. 

4 Luke Thompson 4/10

Started with some physicality and then vanished from the game. 

3 Koo Ji-won 3/10

Scrumming against South Africans is not fun.

2 Shota Horie 4/10

Covered plenty of ground, but had very little influence on proceedings.

1 Keita Inagaki 3/10

Carried the ball well, but was monstered in the scrums.

Replacements:

16 Atsushi Sakate (On for Shota Horie, 72nd min)

Not enough time to be rated.

17 Isileli Nakajima (On for Keita Inagaki, 68th min)

Not enough time to be rated. Came on, and then went off.

18 Asaeli Ai Valu 3/10 (On for Koo Ji-won, 64th min)

Was dominated in the scrums, zero impact elsewhere.

19 Wimpie van der Walt 2/10 (On for Luke Thompson, 54th min)

Came on, and vanished.

20 Amanaki Lelei Mafi 4/10 (On for Kazuki Himeno, 52nd min)

Tackled well enough, one good carry, but that was about it.

21 Fumiaki Tanaka (On for Yutaka Nagare, 72nd min)

Not enough time to be rated

22 Rikiya Matsuda 3/10 (On for Yu Tamura, 48th min)

Made no impact when he came on. The midfield went backwards from the moment he arrived.

23 Lomano Lava Lemeki 1/10 (On for Ryohei Yamanaka, 60th min)

1/10 is generous. I had to watch the replay to see that he was on the field.