Rugby World Cup: Japan will count on speed
Reading tea leaves for the quarterfinals
We now know that SA will be playing Japan on Sunday, as appetising a clash as any on the Rugby World Cup’s quarterfinal menu. It is the first time the Brave Blossoms have progressed to this stage of the tournament.
Just in case you were hibernating or have spent a prolonged period with your head in the sand (never a bad idea in contemporary SA) the other quarterfinals are: England vs Australia; Wales vs France and Ireland vs New Zealand.
Statistics suggest that of the four, there will be one upset. Perhaps France will rub the Gallic sleep from their eyes and rediscover their revolutionary zeal against Warren Gatland’s well-coached Wales?
Or maybe Australia, surprisingly beaten by England in Marseilles at exactly this stage of the World Cup in 2007, will have their revenge? Michael Cheika, their coach, is a growly sort of fellow but it’s misleading. Behind the gruff exterior is a first-rate rugby brain surpassed by precious few — one of those probably being that of Eddie Jones, England’s Aussie gaffer. Yes, Jones is the man who coached Japan to that shock win over SA in the 2015 World Cup.
As far as the Boks are concerned, never mind that they steamrollered Japan 41-7 in a friendly in Kumagaya five weeks ago. This time things will be markedly different, with the Japanese full of bounce after topping their pool unbeaten after four games, including a 19-12 win over Ireland and Sunday’s 28-21 defeat of Scotland.
Japan are coached by two New Zealanders, Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, both from Otago and both former All Blacks. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a Kiwi influence in their style of play. They’re quick, for a start. And they’re adept at changing the point of the attack. They’re also great ball-handlers and they’ll try to move the big Boks across the park in an effort to disrupt their aggressive defence.
In many ways, the match is a clash of opposites. The Boks are a power unit, with a solid scrum and a well-grooved lineout, areas where Japan are seen as weak. The Boks are also good maulers, and will have noted that it was from mauls and barge-overs from close range that the Scots made late inroads against Japan on Sunday.
In an effort to avoid being squeezed into submission by the python-like Boks, Japan will keep the ball in play and shift their attacking focus. They’ll kick when they need to, hope to compete sufficiently in the set-pieces not to lose the match there, and hope hysterical home support lifts them to the semis.
In their favour is the fact that neutrals would expect a Springbok win, so, in a sense, Japan have nothing to lose. It will make them dangerous and, as the match progresses, increasingly hopeful of burgling an upset.
By the same token, the Boks will feel they have the beating of Japan. The electric Makazole Mapimpi scored a hat-trick against them in the pre-World Cup friendly and, in that game, it was noticeable that the Blossoms wilted under the Bok kicking game. They didn’t deal with Handré Pollard’s up-and-unders confidently then. Perhaps this suggests more of the same? And SA’s amazing Cheslin Kolbe should be ready to turn on his own magic against the flying Japanese.
Elsewhere in the quarters, the two most rounded teams in the tournament are New Zealand and England. The men in white are immensely powerful. In George Ford and Owen Farrell at flyhalf and inside centre, respectively, they have both beef and brains, and now that Elliot Daly has been shifted to fullback they have running options from deep.
For their part, the Kiwis aren’t going to surrender their hold on the Webb Ellis Cup without a fight. Despite the occasional misstep in the past season or two, they have no discernible weaknesses. They are strong, tactically supple and street-smart in a way that few other teams in the tournament are.
Former captain Richie McCaw was a past master of playing the game on the very edge of the law. He bequeathed the All Blacks a tradition of winning the World Cup when they triumphed at home in 2011 against France, the first time in 24 years the black machine had won the tournament.
In that Auckland drama, replacement All Black flyhalf Stephen Donald (who was rushed into the side at the 11th hour after an injury to the brilliant Dan Carter) replaced Aaron Cruden after 34 minutes in the final itself.
Donald has subsequently admitted that he wasn’t ready, a confession supported by the fact that his black jersey was several sizes too small. He was composed enough, however, to slot the match-winning penalty on 46 minutes. New Zealand won an epic final 8-7.
There will be yarns in similarly grand vein in the weeks to come.