Depriving Japan’s dangerous back three of possession will be a key priority for the Boks in this Sunday’s quarter-final, and places extra importance on the accuracy of their kicking and defensive game, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In the lead-up to this past weekend’s final round of the pool stages, Bok coach Rassie Erasmus said they would closely watch and analyse the games involving their possible quarter-final opponents.
The likelihood was always that the Boks would be placed against Japan, and the first 40-odd minutes of their enthralling clash with Scotland was particularly telling.
It was during this time that Japan ran in four tries, and swung the momentum and the hysteria of the crowd in their favour. For large parts of the opening exchanges, Scotland looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
After the match, captain Greig Laidlaw conceded that the Scots’ inability to bank any meaningful possession against a dangerous Japan side had left them with a mountain to climb.
It’s a massive lesson for the Boks. In Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka, Japan boast two of the most exciting attacking wings in the game, while New Zealand-born William Tupou is an experienced campaigner at fullback.
Against Scotland alone, Fukuoka made 110 metres (most in the match), three clean breaks (most in the match), beat seven defenders (No 1) and scored two tries.
Throughout this tournament, Japan have superbly played to their strengths, with seasoned coach Jamie Joseph not only inculcating a sense of belief in the team, but also managing to make best use of the attacking weapons at his disposal.
Japan’s effectiveness on attack has been a standout feature of the pool stages, with their handling, offloading, high-paced play and innovation making them a difficult team to handle.
In the crucial win over Scotland, Japan also used the inside pass to great effect, with their dynamic backs running some superb lines off the inside shoulder of the first receiver as they looked to exploit any lazy pillar defenders.
It’s undoubtedly something the Boks would have picked up on, but they will also be very mindful of the need to simply deprive Japan of possession.
At the best of times, playoffs rugby necessitates a conservative, forward- and kicking-orientated approach, and the Springboks should only be too happy to oblige.
The Bok pack has been in sublime form at this tournament. There should be great temptation to retain the powerhouse forces of Lood de Jager, Beast Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi in the starting lineup.
Erasmus will know he has players with the size and strength to soften up Japan in the forward exchanges; and short passes to rampaging forwards around the fringes will surely be a regular sight.
The onus will also be on Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux to make astute decisions when it comes to putting boot to ball. The accuracy of the contestable kicks and kick-chase will be crucial.
And if the Boks do look to pin Japan back in their own territory, they will want to ensure they do so deep in the home team’s half, and force them to exit from deep against the high-pressure South African rush defence.
Erasmus’ charges will need to box clever this weekend, but if they can outmuscle the Japanese in the forward exchanges, and suffocate their attacking threats through accurate kicking and intense defence, there is little doubt that the Boks will progress to the semi-finals.
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