Japan vs South Africa

RWC Warm-Up Review

Japan 7 – 41 South Africa

The Springboks weren’t perfect, but that was not expected in this warm-up fixture. Played in seriously uncomfortable heat and humidity, the whole game was an exercise in tactical intelligence and cautious focus. Nobody wants to get injured two weeks before the Rugby World Cup, nobody wants to get heat-stroke, nobody wants to be fatigued when the important work starts. This was a game that focussed on playing tactically correct, disciplined rugby without unnecessary mistakes or errors. It was about oiling gears and polishing surfaces.

In all, it was a thoroughly workmanlike performance by a Springbok team that did exactly what they set out to do.

Sure, there were handling errors – have you ever tried to play rugby at 30°C with the perspiration sticking to your body and running in rivulets down your arms and onto your hands? The humidity was above 84%, and the dew-point – the point where water and perspiration stops evaporating – was at 23°C. Small wonder that the ball was as slippery as a bar of soap. Damian de Allende could not take that pass as the ball simply slipped through his hands, in dry conditions that was a try. Handré Pollard fumbled the take inside his dead-ball area before a scrambled clearance kick, because the ball slipped in his grasp. The ball went straight through Eben Etzebeth’s hands in the lineout – he got both hands to the ball, but could not get a grip to hold it. Eben Etzebeth is not known for missing the take in a lineout.

That is what humidity and a seriously slippery ball does to you.

Both teams had their fair share of handling problems, and that was to be expected.

Yes, there were errors too – that silly pass by Frans Steyn gifted the try to Japan. A couple of sliced kicks, a box kick or two that went a shade too far. Just a bit of rust. The defence alignment wobbled a bit after Pollard left the field, he has been the general that dictates the play on both attack and defence, and his replacement, Frans Steyn, has not played at 10 for some conisderable time.

Yet there were many pleasing aspects to the Springbok defence too. The most recognisable aspect being the communication between the players as they align themselves on defence. There was plenty of talking, directing each other to fill holes, close the gaps and straighten the line. This was intelligent communication, not frantic yelling and gesturing as was the norm a scant two years ago. It was good to see.

Equally good to see was the interchangeability of roles on defence or attack – if a back was caught in the tackle or ruck, a forward took his place in the line. The realignment was quick and almost seamless.

Another aspect that was especially pleasing was the calmness about the Springbok game, both on attack and on defence. There was no panic, no frantic scrambling, no desperate individual efforts, no wild frenzied moments. This was a team that was wholly focussed on the job at hand, and trusting the system and their team-mates. It was good to see.

A third aspect that I enjoyed watching was the way the Springboks played within themselves. Without a doubt this was an opportunity to put a really massive score past Japan. The Springboks could have ramped up the pace, ramped up the pressure, and simply smashed Japan. Extra  pressure would certainly have caused an increasingly desperate Japan to crack.

But to what purpose?

The job at hand was to win, comfortably, while avoiding injuries and unnecessary strain and fatigue, and that is exactly what the Springboks did. There was no need to overdo it. There was no need to go bananas.

Perhaps the best example of the tactical control exercised by the Springboks was in the scrum. In the first scrum they sent a message – “We can crumple you up when the mood takes us”– as they rolled over the Japanese tight five. After that they simply held their own ball on the front foot, and set the Japanese scrum on its heels and then held them there, they did not overdo the counter-shove on the Japanese ball, with the pressure on Japan being more mental than physical. The Japanese looseforwards were forced to stay bound into the scrum, preventing them from running wide defence or support lines and effectively taking them out of the game.

The Japanese scrum was forced to work hard, while the Springboks did not have to over-exert themselves in those hot, humid, physically and mentally draining conditions. 

Once they had established their lead and were sure that they had the beating of their opponents, the Springboks went into cruise mode in the last 30 minutes, just doing what was necessary to close out the game, waiting for the inevitable opportunities that did come, allowing two more tries despite being down to 14 men.

At the end of the day, this was quite simply a job well done, without overexerting themselves, without serious injury problems. As a warm-up game it was exactly what the Springboks needed.

(The news on Trevor Nyakane’s injury is that it is not serious and will not jeopardise his participation in the RWC.)

I bumped into a friend of mine about an hour after the game – an ex-British Lions scrumhalf – who commented that the Springboks made sure that they did not reveal any specific strategies or tactics that the other World Cup teams could learn from, but sent a clear message, they are ready for the Rugby World Cup 2019.

Player Ratings

South Africa

15 Willie le Roux: 6/10

Solid. Did exactly what he was supposed to do. Was as safe as a house under the high-ball. One superb take-and-offload gave Mapimpi his first try. Some clever tactical kicking and some very good clearance kicks. No razzle-dazzle, but that was not needed.

14 Cheslin Kolbe: 6/10

This fellow is a competitor with the heart of a lion. Punches way above his weight division on defence and certainly rattled his opposite number with his presence and persistence. Finished a good team effort for his first try and read the pass like a best-seller novel to intercept and scamper away for his second. Conceded a silly penalty early in the game for a cynical slap-down. A good day at the office.

13 Lukhanyo Am: 6/10

One of his better days in the 13 jersey. Very good on defence, especially on the cover. A nuisance over the ball on the ground. Safe under the high-ball too.

12 Damian de Allende: 6/10

The slippery ball eluded him when a clear try was on the cards, but other than that he did his job. Some great hits on defence, and a couple of really good crisp passes. A sliced kick directly into touch did not cost anything as the Springboks were playing under a penalty advantage, while one tactical grubber was perhaps unnecessary. 

11 Makazole Mapimpi: 8/10

His best game in the Springbok jersey as he took every chance on offer, and that seemed to ignite his desire to be everywhere, all the time. He chased the ball all afternoon, and worked hard on defence, both in his own channel and covering across. 

10 Handré Pollard: 7/10

Calm, crisp, focussed, and in charge. Sometimes almost imperious as he dictated the ebb and flow of the game. Superb pass in the lead-up to Mapimpi’s second try. His influence on the game was reinforced when he left the field and the game immediately became more scrappy and broken.

9 Francois de Klerk: 6/10

As usual, his detractors have had a go at his box-kicks, yet they are an integral part of the Bok plan to force the opposition to run from deep under pressure. If you do not like it, don’t blame Faf, send Rassie a message on Whatsapp. His service to the backs and the forward pods was impeccable. Faf’s defence was outstanding as he piled the pressure on the Japanese half-backs and forced scrambled passes and mistakes. 

8 Duane Vermeulen: 6/10

Played an influential part in ensuring that the Japanese loosies were tied in and forced to play close. He carried with power and was a serious presence over the ball on the ground. Some serious tackles too.

7 Pieter-Steph du Toit: 8/10

What can one say about the man with the biggest engine in rugby. Tackling, pressurising, supporting, cleaning out, carrying, linking, catching… All afternoon, without taking a moment off. Great pass for Mapimpi’s final try.

6 Siya Kolisi:6/10

Still a yard or two off full match-fitness, he was an influential captain and a real nuisance on defence and when harrying the Japanese ball carriers. Won a great turnover on defence too.  Made some big tackles.

5 Franco Mostert: 7/10

Seems to have an insatiable appetite for hard grafting work. Some monstrous hits on defence as he made 15 tackles. Carried well, and his scramble defence was superb. His work in and round the rucks is herculean.

4 Eben Etzebeth: 6/10

Some really great steals in the lineout – one fumbled by Pieter-Steph du Toit close to the Bok line, but eventually sorted. A bit quieter than usual when carrying, but some of his defensive hits caused one to wince on behalf of the recipient.

3 Frans Malherbe: 6/10

Solid as a rock in the scrums, and worked very hard in the mauls and rucks – sometimes invisible to the average fan as they look for the spectacular rather than the engine-room stuff. Was instrumental in stopping a couple of Japanese mauls in their tracks. There is no flash about his game, but someone once said that a flash prop was a prop that is not doing his job.

2 Malcolm Marx: 5/10

Seems a little off his best. Not quite as involved as we have come to expect. Did his job in the close-quarters combat, and his lineout work was spot on. 

1 Steven Kitshoff: 6/10

Much like his hooker, he seemed just a shade off his best. Scrummed solidly and with power, but did not carry the ball as much as we have become accustomed to. Made some solid tackles


16 Bongi Mbonambi 6/10 (on for Marx, 53rd minutes):

Did his job, as he always does. One well managed lineout maul, but the game had gone into cruise mode by the time he arrived. 

17 Tendai Mtawarira 5/10 (on for Kitshoff, 53rd minute):

Did not have much to do when he came on form what was essentially a training run. 

18 Trevor Nyakane (on for Malherbe, 50th minute):

Not enough time for a rating.

19 Rudolph Snyman (on for Etzebeth, 70th minute):

Not enough time for a rating.

20 Francois Louw (on for Kolisi, 65th minute):

Not enough time for a rating.

(Yellow carded six minutes after appearing on the field. It seemed harsh as he had won the turnover before going over. It was a team yellow for repeated infringements.)

21 Herschel Jantjies 6/10 (on for de Klerk, 65th minute):

His usual quickness and adventurous self. Scored a try as the Japanese simply evaporated in front of him.

22 Frans Steyn 4/10 (on for Pollard, 59th minute):

Not really the answer at 10. His scrambled pass gifted the Japanese their try. Knocked on a high kick. Made his tackles. Simply closed down the game, which really gave no indication of his real worth.

23 Jesse Kriel 5/10 (on for Am, 63rd minute):

Did not really have much to do. The game was over and in cruise mode by the time he arrived. Made four tackles.


15 William Tupou: 4/10

Just could not handle the pressure under the high ball, and was targeted by the Springboks. 

14 Kotaro Matsushima: 5/10

Exposed by his opposite number Mapimpi on more than one occasion. Should a decent turn of pace when he gt the opportunity, but butchered a second scoring chance with poor hands.

13 Timothy Lafaele: 4/10

Struggled to find any rhythm and momentum as he was shut down by the Springbok defence. Missed coupe of crucial tackles as he was sucked in by the initial Springbok direct runners, leaving the wide channels exposed.  

12 Ryoto Nakamura: 3/10

Missed too many tackles, bounced off De Allende, and did little else. Was totally shut down by De Allende and Faf de Klerk.

11 Kenki Fukuoka:

Not enough time to be rated.

10 Yu Tamura: 3/10

Under pressure all afternoon, hence he simply shuffled the ball sideways. Missed heaps of tackles. Conceded at least two turnovers. 

9 Kaito Shigeno: 3/10

Simply could not cope with the pressure put on by Faf de Klerk. Scrambled a host of passes in the general direction of “away”…. 

8 Amanaki Mafi: 2/10

Zero influence with the ball in hand, zero influence on defence. Seems to have lost the robust mojo that was his trademark in Super Rugby. Spent a lot of time watching the game from offside positions after playing beyond the ball. Took out PS du Toit without the ball, at least 10m from the actual play. That was about his only contribution. 

7 Pieter Labuschagne: 5/10

Tried hard, and made plenty of desperate tackles. Made one good carry along with 9 others. Seemed to miss the humour in whatever it was that Franco Mostert said to him.

6 Michael Leitch: 6/10

Tried hard and spent some time trying to get the ball out on the wing. Was rather over-vociferous in demanding a yellow card for Kolbe’s knock-down. Seemed to get increasingly frustrated as nothing his team tried worked. 

5 Uwe Helu: 4/10

Inconspicuous. Overwhelmed by the Springbok physicality. 

4 Luke Thompson: 6/10

Tried hard, but seemed fatigued towards the end. Did a lot of talking as he tried to gee-up his team-mates. Japan’s second most productive player – nine carries and 11 tackles.

3 Koo Ji-won: 4/10

Was out of his depth in the scrums and slipped his bind time and again, although unpunished by the officials – it had no impact on the flow of the game. Made a handful of carries. 

2 Atsushi Sakate: 5/10

Somewhat invisible as he was forced into playing a tight game. Did the basics well enough. Tackled well enough.

1 Keita Inagaki: 3/10

Spent his entire afternoon trying to stay in the scrum contest. Did nothing else.


16 Takuya Kitade (on for Sakate, 71st minute):

Not enough time to be rated.

17 Isileli Nakajima 2/10 (on for Inagaki, 60th minute):

Made no impact at all.  Seemed unable to play at Test Match pace.

18 Asaeli Ai Valu 3/10 (on for Koo, 41st minute):

39 minutes of nothing. Made just five metres in five carries, made one tackle, missed a tackle and conceded a turnover.

19 James Moore 5/10 (on for Helu, 41st minute):

Certainly better than the man he replaced. Tried hard. Some good carries and a couple of tackles. 

20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga 4/10 (on for Mafi, 45th minute):

Invisible, mostly. Seemed out of his depth. 

21 Yutaka Nagare 2/10 (on for Shigeno, 53rd minute):

Why was he sent on? Did nothing. No tackles, no carries, no runs, just a couple of passes.

22 Rikiya Matsuda (on for Moeakiola, 66th minute):

Not enough time to be rated.

23 Ataata Moeakiola 5/10 (on for Fukuoka, 4th minute).

At least he tried to run straight. He made 60 meters in 13 carries. Was turned over more regularly than is decent.