The Springboks have embraced the magic as well as the mayhem during an eventful buildup to their World Cup opener, writes JON CARDINELLI in Tokyo.
Hachiko Square is the last place you’d expect to encounter Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Beast Mtawarira.
As I joined the horde of pedestrians marching across one of the busiest streets in Tokyo, I noticed the Springbok trio standing some 10-storeys tall on a billboard nearby. Another crowd of people marched towards me. Another army rushed in from the left, and another from the right.
My first thought was of a scene from Game of Thrones or the Battle of the Five Armies. Then a jarring jingle rang out from the speakers across the square – a sound from a 1980s arcade that makes you feel as if you’re a character in a video game.
Tokyo has been mad and brilliant. The weather has been oppressively warm, and threats of another typhoon have done nothing to ease the concern among coaches and administrators.
I’ve been following the players and coaches’ comments about the conditions and the country over the past two weeks. And yet, to experience it first-hand has given me a better idea about what to expect over the next two months.
The Boks have opted to embrace the magic and the madness. They’ve opted to draw on the energy of the locals – some of whom were camped outside their training ground earlier this week – and on the vibe around a country that is determined to put on a show to remember.
That ‘bring-it-on’ attitude has been just as prevalent in the media room.
On Monday, Mzwandile Stick went out of his way to call for fair and accurate refereeing at this tournament. It was a bold statement to make ahead of the clash with New Zealand, as it inferred that most teams don’t get a fair deal when they face the All Blacks.
Faf de Klerk dropped a subtle hint about the refereeing earlier this week. Every coach and player who’s faced the media has used the opportunity to make a statement.
For the first time in ages, the Boks are initiating the mind games. It’s a move that speaks volumes for their confidence and mindset.
Not that they haven’t been tested over the past few days.
There’s a lot of talk – especially in the United Kingdom and Europe – about the Boks going into this tournament as title favourites. It’s been interesting to note how many foreign journalists – from Ireland, New Zealand, France – have attended South African media conferences over the past three days.
For better or worse, there’s a renewed interest in this Bok side. The coaches and players have been exposed to a different sort of pressure in the media room.
On Tuesday, a team of Irish journalists asked assistant coach Matt Proudfoot to comment about the recent doping suspensions in South Africa at senior and junior level.
At first, Proudfoot was reluctant to comment. Eventually, he provided a brief explanation about the testing protocols and then condemned the act of doping in sport.
On Wednesday, Rassie Erasmus was asked by a foreign journalist to comment on the Eben Etzebeth situation. An investigation into the incident that occurred prior to the World Cup squad announcement in late August is still ongoing.
Erasmus accepted the question and delivered an honest response about how the team plans to co-operate with the relevant authorities. There was no move by Erasmus to shut the question down or to dodge the issue.
The Boks already have a target on their backs following their title victory in the Rugby Championship. If they knock over the tournament favourites this Saturday, all the attention and criticism that is usually reserved for the All Blacks – whether it’s justified or unwarranted – will shift to them.
Will a typhoon hit Tokyo and result in a big game – such as the Boks vs All Blacks clash on Saturday or the Ireland vs Scotland match on Sunday – ending in a 0-0 draw? Nobody appears to have a definitive answer.
A big turnout is expected at the grounds in and around the capital this weekend. It would be a shame if the weather prevented the tournament from getting off to an explosive start.
For now, the Boks are riding the wave of expectation and euphoria. They’ve done their physical preparation. They’ve initiated the pre-match mind games and have engaged with the international media on several serious issues.
There will be a few bumps in the road over the next few weeks. From what I’ve seen and heard over the past few days, the Boks appear to be physically and mentally equipped to deal with a campaign that will serve up more challenges and surprises.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports via Hollywoodbets