No looking back for Boks or Japan ahead of World Cup QFs
TOKYO (AP) — It wasn’t lost in translation, more a difference in perspective.
Japan coach Jamie Joseph referred to the team’s heavy loss to South Africa last month as a rehearsal for the Rugby World Cup. The South Africans described it as a warmup for the sport’s marquee tournament.
Either way, the 41-7 result doesn’t seem to be an accurate barometer of current form, considering Japan’s historic progress to a quarterfinal match against the Springboks on Sunday.
“That’s something that no other team in the World Cup quarterfinals have had,” Joseph said, “and I think that’s going to be a benefit for us.”
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus figured the big win in Kumagaya on Sept. 6 might mean people were less inclined to talk about Japan’s shocking upset win over the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup, a 34-32 triumph that has been dubbed the “Miracle of Brighton.”
That was never going to work. As soon as Japan beat Scotland to confirm top spot in Pool A and a place in the Rugby World Cup knockout stage for the first time, the Brighton game was always going to be a theme for the week.
Not that it factors into Joseph’s planning. He wasn’t head coach four years ago, when Japan won three pool games but didn’t reach the quarterfinals, so the expectations on him are different.
“I’ve been trying to forget about that for the last four years,” Joseph said. “We’re a different team. That was an amazing achievement for the last World Cup. We’re sort of working on our own thing.”
Erasmus was content doing his own thing, too. Although that doesn’t mean any dramatic departures from what the Springboks have done for decades.
He announced his team for the quarterfinals a day ahead of schedule, figuring there was no point holding back a lineup clearly picked with the intention of battering Japan. He went for the most aggressive forward pack he could start with, and loaded the eight-man reserves bench with six forwards.
Then he reiterated, step-by-step, the plan to grind down Japan’s high-energy game.
“It’s clear what South Africa is going to do,” Joseph said. “Being very direct, very physical ... a clear sign of the intent. That’s what we’ve been preparing for all week.
“What’s not so clear is what we’re going to do — that’s what I’m looking forward to!”
Joseph made only one injury-enforced change to its lineup to face South Africa after fullback William Tupou failed a head-injury assessment and was replaced by Ryohei Yamanaka.
Captain Michael Leitch, winger Kotaro Matsushima, hooker Shota Horie and lock Luke Thompson started in the 2015 win over South Africa and are back in the XV again. There are eight players in all returning from that squad. Prop Keita Inagaki and flyhalf Yu Tamura were on the bench four years ago but are in the starting lineup for Sunday, while Fumiaki Tanaka and Amanaki Lelei Mafi are again on the bench.
Japan achieved its pre-tournament target by reaching the knockout stage on home soil. Time to re-set, Leitch said.
“This is not the end of the story,” he said. “We’re not satisfied. The match we had four years ago, the world started to focus on the Japan rugby team — surprised — and the fans of Japan were struck with how we played. We’ve got the chance to do it live in front of the Japanese people again.”
Veteran prop Tendai Mtawarira and hooker Bongi Mbonambi forced their way into the starting pack for South Africa after missing out on the opening pool-stage loss to defending champion New Zealand, with Erasmus expecting them to have a big impact at the set piece.
“It’s no secret,” Erasmus said of the plan to try to outmuscle the smaller but faster Japan pack. The idea is to “nullify the space around the tight forwards, with the pace that they have. And to play toward our strengths, which is physical rugby, set phases, mauling, scrums.”
Japan has outright speed out wide, with Matsushima tied as the leading tryscorer in the tournament so far with five and Kenki Fukuoka’s match-winning double against Scotland raising his tally to four. South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe is of a similar pace and stature, and also knows his way to the tryline. Otherwise, the South Africans number up bigger across the board.
Mtawarira, lock Lood De Jager and flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit started in the loss to Japan four years ago, and are more prepared this time after the big win in the warmup — or rehearsal — in Kumagaya.
“They definitely try to pick up the pace of the game in all aspects. For us, it’s about being ready for it — to expect the quick lineouts, to be set early,” De Jager said. “We are going to stick to our plan and what we know.
“We weren’t that well prepared in Brighton. But they still beat us fair and square that day — we are not making any excuses. I think that warmup game we played before the World Cup against Japan really puts us in good stead for the quarterfinal.”