The big wins against Namibia, Italy and Canada have done little to prepare the Springboks for a quarter-final showdown with Japan or Ireland, writes JON CARDINELLI in Kobe.
It may seem like the Boks are in a fantastic position. The loss to the All Blacks on the opening weekend of the World Cup is likely to cost them a top-place finish in Pool B. The big upset win by Japan in Pool A, however, may see the Boks facing the lower-ranked hosts rather than a tactically imposing Ireland in the first round of the World Cup knockouts.
Would the Boks prefer to play Japan rather than Ireland in the quarter-finals? Rassie Erasmus tip-toed around the question following the Boks’ final pool match against Canada on Tuesday.
What he said next, though, suggested that Japan’s high-tempo, possession-based approach may not be as effective as Ireland’s kick-chase assault in a do-or-die fixture. Then there’s the fact that Japan have never featured in a World Cup playoff before.
So yes, given the choice, the Boks would prefer to play Japan.
Still, there is the nagging question regarding how much this Bok side has truly grown over the past four weeks.
They were tested – and found wanting – at the breakdown and in the air when they battled the All Blacks in Yokohama. They were not challenged in these areas in subsequent clashes with Namibia, Italy and Canada. While stats such as 172 points and 26 tries during that three-game period suggest that progress has been made, their attack hasn’t felt the pressure of a quality defensive press since the New Zealanders rushed them more than three weeks ago.
Erasmus should be pleased that his entire squad got game time in the lead-up to the playoffs. While Trevor Nyakane and Jesse Kriel have returned to South Africa with injuries, the Boks are fortunate that their first-choice players have come through the pool games and will be fit for the crunch match in Tokyo next weekend.
The challenge from here on in is mental as well as physical. The Boks must reflect on their loss to the All Blacks rather than their successes against Namibia, Italy and Canada.
They should know that the intensity and flow of the coming contest will be nothing like what they’ve experienced in recent weeks. They must focus on sharpening their aerial skills, their kicking game and their defence, as this is where the big playoff matches will be won and lost.
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