Cape Town — Extremely perilous date with a host country on a roll, and backed by an increasingly switched-on, passionate local public?
But South Africa still hold most of the aces for their World Cup quarter-final tussle with Japan at Tokyo Stadium (12:15 SA time) on Sunday … to the extent that I believe they will win by a double-figure margin. That might sound a dangerously flippant prediction, especially with the line-ups not yet named, but here are five pivotal reasons why I am so convinced it will occur:
This will be the third bilateral clash but only second at World Cup level … and the very fact that it is “Japan 1 South Africa 0” on that lofty stage is exactly the sort of complacency-quelling knowledge the Boks need.
Granted, this Japanese team under Jamie Joseph’s tutelage has come on in leaps and bounds since that positively earth-shattering 34-32 downing of the Boks – then with Eddie Jones to the tactical fore — in a pool opener at Brighton’s Community Stadium during RWC 2015.
Yet to this day, most shrewd judges will acknowledge that it was still a game the heavyweights would have won if their composure hadn’t gone strangely AWOL (the Boks had scored four tries to three, and it was 4-2 until Karne Hesketh’s dramatically decisive dot-down in the corner with time up on the clock). Once again, and while it may seem so obvious, memories of that red-faced reverse will be an extremely useful device in geeing the Boks up sufficiently for a possibly even fury-driven revenge …
The pre-RWC meeting
If the Boks do prevail on Sunday, it will be their second triumph in a row against these opponents in the space of just over six weeks.
It would also, you’d imagine, only underline the wisdom of the SA team having played the host nation in a ghosts-exorcising Test match at Saitama on the eve of the World Cup … and where they triumphed by a not-to-be-sniffed-at scoreline of 41-7.
If that isn’t psychologically beneficial manna (the Boks dotted six tries to one) for a swift enough follow-up meeting, then I don’t know what is.
Nor should there be any special reason for suggesting the Brave Blossoms were potentially “holding something back” from the Boks that day.
Why would they have? At the time, Japan would have been intent purely on targeting a quarter-final place at the World Cup — most likely in second behind strong favourites Ireland in their pool, let’s face it — and hardly thinking obsessively about withholding any of their strengths or strategic secrets from the Boks. They also threw their optimal staffing resources at South Africa in Saitama, as evidenced by the fact that 11 of their starting line-up there also began the pool-closing crunch against Scotland on Sunday, with two others on the bench (and Amanaki Mafi, normally their first-choice No 8 who began against the Boks, has been curtailed by injury subsequently).
Boks matching Japan’s fitness
Arriving as the first of all competing, visiting countries at RWC 2019 has been another Rassie Erasmus masterstroke, it seems.
While that brought the risk of tour fatigue setting in at some point, by all accounts the Boks have been at very worst “comfortable” thus far in the Land of the Rising Sun … but more importantly, particularly well-adjusted to the challenging levels of humidity.
The Bok head coach had already placed a suitably high emphasis on smart conditioning ahead of the tournament — including deftly keeping key personnel “out of competition” at certain times to allow a good focus on gym and stamina-based work — and getting to Japan early has only aided the squad further in acclimatisation.
Some teams, and notably those from more western parts of Europe, have huffed and puffed more noticeably through the group stage at times.
Japan have a strongly tempo-based game … but South Africa should be equipped to live with it.
SA’s “two packs” arsenal … and KO phase-suited Game plan
Whether Erasmus opts to go with a more conventional 5-3 forwards/backs bench split for the quarter-final or repeats his “Italy trick” of even favouring 6-2, the Boks will throw pretty much “two packs” at the less physically-blessed Japanese engine room, particularly when it comes to quality of tight-five resources.
So South Africa ought to be in a position to have a front five capable of (more than?) neutralising their opponents for 50 minutes or so, before the introduction of further gnarly specimens who either maintain or enhance mastery for the remaining half-hour of the knockout match.
It is just one reason why the Boks should gradually throttle the host nation into submission — though just another is that the 1995 and 2007 champions traditionally, anyway, play a brand of conservative-themed rugby that is often enough tailor-made for knockout play.
The Boks’ (likely) greater freshness on Sunday
Yes, there is the possible hazard — I have drawn attention to it before — of the Boks beginning the quarter-final feeling a wee bit undercooked after a breeze through the three pool games that followed the opener against the All Blacks … plus the fact that their “first team” will not have started since the Italy triumph (49-3) on reasonably distant October 4.
But they are shrewd enough — both from the booth and among the wise leadership heads on the field — to be alert to that possibility and knowing how to crank up the intensity in a hurry if it becomes necessary.
A counter view, and one I am more inclined to value, will be that South Africa gradually reap some benefit on the day from their period of “R & R” … whereas the Japanese side, now playing at a searing level they are not mentally accustomed to, feel the residual effects of their frantic mini-final, if you like, against Scotland, played only a week ahead of the big Bok date. — Sport24.