rugby world cup
Boks to brave the Blossoms?
Japan stand up to be counted
Not only did Japan add to their growing reputation by beating Ireland 19-12 on the weekend, but they also did the rugby world a huge favour.
One of the disadvantages of a Rugby World Cup is that matters seem largely preordained. Only five or six teams are capable of winning the competition, so the early rounds have an element of dress rehearsal about them.
Tonga, Namibia and Georgia might play a good half; they might conceivably score the try that leads the day’s TV round-up of special moments. But come the business end of things they aren’t going to beat England or the All Blacks. They are there to make up the numbers, though the natural reserve (read "hypocrisy"?) of such occasions means that no-one can quite bring themselves to say as much.
Japan changed all that. They are now realistic quarterfinal contenders, with their final round-robin match against Scotland on October 13 looming as large as Ben Nevis.
Scotland, remember, lost 27-3 to Ireland in their opening World Cup game. For all the world, Ireland looked up and running as a result, but the Japan loss revealed their old foible: too predictable a game plan under coach Joe Schmidt’s heavy hand. And while they are a technically adept team, they’re also an ageing one.
Should Scotland, for example, beat Japan and they, with Ireland, win their remaining games as expected against Russia and Samoa, then it will all boil down to the tournament fine print. First how the respective teams have fared against each other, then points difference, then tries scored, and so on.
The implications will not have been lost on Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, who watched his side sometimes look very good and sometimes very ordinary in beating Namibia 57-3 in the City of Toyota Stadium on Saturday. If the Springboks beat Italy and Canada in their remaining group games, as they should, they will finish second in their group behind the All Blacks.
This means they will have to play the winner of the Japan, Ireland, Scotland group in their quarterfinal. Given Ireland’s apparent fallibility at the moment, they would probably prefer a tussle with the other men in green. An encounter with Japan looks as tricky as using chopsticks with your left hand.
Japan, remember, provided the upset of the 2015 RWC by beating the Boks in Brighton in precisely the same round-robin stage. The win that time was orchestrated by Eddie Jones — now coaching England — as sly an old stager who ever barked instructions into a walkie-talkie. Japan are clearly world rugby’s happening side.
Never mind the naff nickname (either the "Brave Blossoms" or the "Cherry Blossoms"), they are beginning to develop confidence on the international stage.
They are now coached by Jamie Joseph, a rampaging All Black back-rower, and a man who — to coin a rugby phrase — knows his way around the paddock.
Domestic rugby in Japan has institutional money, so it attracts players from around the world, not only those in their dotage. Coaching standards are high. Such investment is beginning to, well, blossom.
Like Russia, who as hosts played out of their socks in the 2018 Fifa World Cup, Japan will revel in having home-ground advantage should they make it to the quarters. Whoever they play will not relish the prospect. On October 13, Scottish knees will be knocking beneath their kilts.
As far as the beloved Bokke are concerned, it was the body language rather than the scoreboard that was really worth watching in the galloping Namibia victory. This is a hugely experienced Springbok squad, all the way to what goes on inside Schalk Britz’s red scrum-cap.
The Bulls hooker led the team against Namibia and did so with a devotion to the bigger picture that was impressive. Such games are booby-trapped in so far as the critics go nuts if the favourites lose, while predictable victory brings little more than a sour shrug.
Lood de Jager, the bearded lock, went about his business against Namibia in similarly professional fashion — a fact that won’t have gone unnoticed by Erasmus.
Next up, Italy, who might not be as slippery as Japan but who are capable of making life very unpleasant for the Boks, say, should it rain.
Not that we are thinking that way. Not that we are thinking that way at all.