Our squad will be tested to the limit by adaptable Japan in today’s quarterfinal
When the South African and Japanese sides step onto the Yokohama Stadium turf in their Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match this afternoon, they will be accompanied by all manner of narratives which are supposed to play a part in tilting the result one way or the other.
Revenge – from the Springboks’ humiliating loss in Brighton four years ago to SA Rugby Union’s supposed role in ridding Super Rugby of the Sunwolves – will feature heavily; the survivors, seven from the visitors and six from the hosts, will come in for special mention; divided loyalties, given how welcome the Boks have been in Japan, might even feature (don’t hold your breath); and history (on Japan’s part) will beckon.
But on the field the only story that will unfold is the age-old sporting one of a good big one against a good little one; Japan’s sophisticated attack against South Africa’s disruptive defence; the Japanese warrior spirit against the green and gold tsunami; and the old tale of heavyweight Goliath trying to put the Jewish bantamweight David in his place.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus – by selecting a 900kg pack weighing 32kg more than the opposition and naming a bench with a six-two split in favour of more forwards – has followed the Goliath script by picking big.
With Japan’s attack talked up in the build-up, the Bok coach has decided to deny them a platform from which to launch it by keeping their forwards under constant pressure from his, with the insurance of another pack on the bench to keep up the stifling tactics.
The tactic is also to keep the hosts’ loose-trio of Michael Leitch, Lappies Labuschagne and Kazuki Himeno – who are the faces of Japan’s fearlessness, tough tackling and indefatigability, respectively – on the back foot throughout the game.
Should the Bok forwards, who have been described in several quarters as the best on view in this tournament, do their thing, Erasmus’ next step to quelling the Japanese uprising is a fearsome defence which is as high-octane as it looks kamikaze.
As celebrated as Japan’s ability is to vary their attack and switch from going blind to going open, the main issue emanating from the Bok rush defence – which is not necessarily considered the best in the tournament owing to the fact that sometimes it rushes itself, it is so overeager – is that time is the one thing the hosts won’t have much of.
Their only hope to outsmart the Bok defence will be an attacking kicking game comprising chips into the space the South Africans’ line-speed will leave behind, the diagonal kick-passes that so exposed the Boks against the All Blacks, and grubber kicks through the fast-advancing visiting defence.
The catch there might be the reported fact that fly half Yu Tamura has kicked only 10 attacking kicks in four games before today, meaning kicking is probably not a default setting of his. But if the Japanese team is great at one thing, it is that they are adaptable.
Given how massive the Boks are, Jamie Joseph’s men have talked up wanting to keep the ball in play for a ridiculous 50 minutes – which is 11 minutes longer than they did in their last game against Scotland – to tire them out.
As logical as that sounds, the Boks are actually one of the better-conditioned teams in the competition, a side which scored two tries in the last 10 minutes in the stifling heat and humidity of the warm-up game they played against Japan with a man in the sin-bin.
Where Japan might have a prayer is in Erasmus’ strategy to go forwards heavy in his match-day squad of 23 and the psychology of the situation.
Should key backline players like Handré Pollard get injured early in the match, there won’t be enough backup from the bench, and the chances they hope to get from suffocating the hosts with their forwards and defence may go abegging.
The Boks also have a history of preferring to be the underdogs in big games, a psychosis which will be tested to the limit by a Japanese team brimming with belief and confidence, and a nation getting used to its team giant-killing on a given Sunday.