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No shock for Boks: SA beats Japan, reaches World Cup semis

October 20, 2019
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South Africa's Siya Kolisi, center, and Bongi Mbonambi celebrate after defeating Japan in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match in Tokyo, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
1 of 11
South Africa's Siya Kolisi, center, and Bongi Mbonambi celebrate after defeating Japan in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match in Tokyo, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

TOKYO (AP) — There was no epic shock for the Springboks this time, regardless of how much Japan threw at them.

South Africa settled for a trademark, grinding 26-3 win over Japan on Sunday to reach the semifinals, bringing an end to the home team’s exciting run at the first Rugby World Cup staged in Asia.

The week-long hype over a potential repeat of Japan’s upset over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, dubbed the Miracle of Brighton, was muscled out of reality by a big Springboks lineup that stuck to its attritional game plan.

With a halftime score of 5-3 it was still anybody’s game. The “epic moments” of Japan’s famous win four years ago were replayed on the stadium screen during the break in play, but it seemed only to remind the South Africans of what was at stake.

“We were very nervous at halftime,” Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said. “We were nervous going into this match, with the home support and the way they played against Ireland and Scotland. They were definitely building momentum.

“Going into halftime and only being up a few points, and leaving a few tries out there, there was definitely a quietness in our change room. But the guys knew which buttons to push to get ourselves out of that lull and come out of it in the second half. We were proud of that.”

Handre Pollard landed three penalty goals from the 44th to the 64th minutes to give the two-time champions an 11-point cushion before the South Africans finally opened it up.

Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk scooted over in the 66th after a powerful driving maul from the Springboks had Japan on the back foot, and Makazole Mapimpi added his second try of the match by finishing off a long-range movement in the 70th to put the result beyond doubt.

Captain Michael Leitch and his Japanese squad won millions of converts to the sport for their high-intensity brand of running rugby, beating Russia in the tournament opener, upsetting an Irish team that was ranked No. 1 and confirming top spot in Pool A with victories over Samoa and Scotland.

But they weren’t able to cross South Africa’s line in what was their first ever trip to the knockout stages of the tournament.

The Springboks are old pros at this end of the tournament, improving to 5-2 in World Cup quarterfinals and setting up a meeting against Wales next Sunday for a place in the final. Two-time defending champion New Zealand and England meet in the other semifinal.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved at the World Cup, we’ll accept that, we’ll enjoy that a little later on,” Japan coach Jamie Joseph said. “But I’m really disappointed for the players because they gave so much to the country at this World Cup, I’m just a little disappointed.”

Television ratings were at an all-time high, fan zones were packed and the so-called Brave Blossoms got saturation media coverage, all in a country were rugby has a long tradition but hadn’t really been a mainstream sport.

The buzz that the team created with its high-energy, fast-pace game spread well beyond the host nation, with Japan adopted as a second team for rugby fans across the globe.

That added to the complexity for South Africa on Sunday night. The South Africans had to defend for most of the first half, were a man down for 10 minutes and only had a fraction of the possession.

“The score did not really reflect how tough it was,” Erasmus said. “The Japanese team is well coached and they’re tough and they’re fit and they fight and they’ve got great support. At the end of the day we must be satisfied with the win.”

Mapimpi gave South Africa a 5-0 lead in the 4th, easily beating an attempted tackle from Yu Tamuru after a big shove from the Springbok scrum and outpacing the cover defense to the left corner.

Japan absorbed the early pressure and started to take control when veteran South Africa prop Tendi Mtawarira was yellow-carded in the 10th minute for a tip-tackle, leaving his team with 14 men.

The home team attacked relentlessly — even taking a scrum against the head. That led to Japan’s points, from a calmly taken penalty goal by Tamura in the 20th minute.

Kenki Fukuoka got close with surge on the left wing, but Japan wasn’t able to turn almost 70 percent of possession and territory into a try in the first half. South Africa crossed the line twice, but had tries disallowed.

Eventually, though, the constant battering took its toll. It was all but over with 20 minutes to go.

The Japan team did a lap of Tokyo Stadium, where die-hard fans stayed long after fulltime to celebrate their team as it thanked them in a way that would normally be reserved for the victors. Japan not only won four games at the tournament, it won over a lot of new fans and some skeptical critics.

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