Springboks facing their World Cup demons

South Africa ferociously exorcised the ghost of Brighton from four years ago by eliminating Japan in their own backyard. But with Wales up next in the semifinals, they have another demon to slay.

In the immediate aftermath of the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Japan, Rassie Erasmus – who has worn so many caps in the past 18 months, one suspects he also has “team psychologist” in his locker – suggested that his side had buried the ghost of Brighton with that game.

The 41-7 win in this warm-up match would have given the Springboks the satisfaction of comprehensively beating the team that humiliated them in the 2015 World Cup, an upset so seismic it has since been turned into a movie. But it wasn’t a “real” game and it certainly wasn’t against the same Japanese side the Springboks met in the quarterfinal on Sunday 20 October. 

In the six weeks after that “friendly”, the World Cup hosts became cult figures whose main currency was making history. They built up an untold amount of confidence and self-belief by winning Pool A, a group in which they were expected to be no more than respectable cannon fodder.

So for the Boks to exact a truer sense of revenge, they would have to look their demons in the eye. And few things scream “eye contact” more than a last eight game against a host team with history on their mind, the support of 123 million Japanese, and the captured imagination of a global rugby audience.

And so two teams – with such different approaches to the game, one would swear they don’t play the same sport – descended on Tokyo Stadium with varying points to prove and one common goal: to be the last team to secure a place in the semifinals.

David and Goliath rumble again

On the field, the contest boiled down to that of a good big one against a good little one, Japan’s sophisticated attack against South Africa’s disruptive defence, the Japanese warrior spirit against the green and gold tsunami, and the old tale of heavyweight Goliath trying to put the bantamweight David in his place.

In a way it was fitting that the outgunned but fearless Japanese were playing under the gaze of Ken Watanabe, the lead actor in The Last Samurai and a man who has probably come to represent the patron saint of courageous lost causes as a result of his role in the film. 

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For their part, the South Africans had ex-Bok captains Francois Pienaar and John Smit – whose World Cup victories were a dozen years apart, in 1995 and 2007 respectively – in the crowd, daring Siya Kolisi’s men to write their own history 12 years to the day since Smit lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.

As much as 100 million Japanese fans and a few more million neutrals would have liked David to do what he is known for, the course of this game had already been altered by Goliath’s handler: Erasmus, the Springbok coach and SA Rugby’s director of rugby.

Having twigged on to David being a one-sling pony, the Bok coach devised a plan so simple it was genius. By picking six forwards and a new tight five in his bench of eight, Erasmus effectively went for an approach based on Plan A that would be followed by Plan A reinforced. 

What’s rope-a-dope in Japanese?

The objective was an 80 minute-long rope-a-dope in which Japan – a team incapable of playing without their customary wit and bravery at a lung-bustingly high tempo – would be encouraged to exhaust themselves physically by a team who bossed their forwards, gave them a surfeit of ball and presented them with nothing but blind alleys in defence.

The frenzied opening 30 minutes established a pattern featuring a carousel of the hosts’ assortment of inside, floated and no-look passes against a defensive line chasing each ball carrier as if he were making off with their cellphone and wallet.

With Faf de Klerk acting as the spark plug for the Boks’ blitz line speed by harassing his opposite number, centre Lukhanyo Am making telepathic reads and spot tackles, and Kolisi and Damian de Allende tackled anything that moved, Japan were held tryless for the first time in a World Cup game since 2007.

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A great example of the rabid nature of the Bok defence, which at times looked like a big hit fest, was how Japanese captain Michael Leitch, a man so combative he sings the national anthem wearing his gum shield, was unceremoniously shut down from inspiring the guttural roar of “Leeeeitch!” from the home fans.

Japan scored their only points in the 26-3 defeat when the Boks were down to 14 men, after Beast Mtawarira’s dangerous tackle on Keita Inagaki. They had 81% of possession during this period, but by the final quarter one got the impression that the Japanese players no longer wanted to carry on faced with the futility of it all.

The visiting forwards rendered the Japanese scrum about as stable as a donkey on stilettos, pickpocketed their lineout for four of their own throw-ins while maintaining a gleaming record of 57/57 takes in the tournament, and put the hosts’ rolling-maul defence on roller skates. It laid the foundation for the slow-poison nature of the victory.

Rugby only a mother could love

A tone-setting first scrum of the match for a pack that would pressure Japan, even with seven men, led to winger Makazole Mapimpi’s first try. A 45m lineout drive, which should be reclassified as a run, resulted in De Klerk scoring. And Pieter-Steph du Toit’s lineout steal 5m from his tryline yielded Mapimpi’s second try.

Between the snarl of the forwards, the uncharitable mood of the defence and the reliance on a box-kicking tactic so incessant it should be renamed the “Boks kick”, the rugby played was understandably the kind only a mother could love.

But anti-rugby or not, it put the Brighton debacle to bed and ended with Japan being frogmarched from their own ball by bouncers in green and gold.

Yet that won’t stop South African fans – some of whose faces appear in the jersey numbers, as if to remind the players of their expectations – from carping about the Boks failing to take four chances in a first half that saw them leading 5-3 as Wales slid into view as a semifinal opponent.

What’s eating Willie le Roux?

Not to put too fine a point on it, designated playmakers Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux were put in the shade by the forwards and defensive pressure from a creative point of view, which begs the question of what happens when the Boks meet a team which matches their abrasive pack, mongrel for mongrel.

Pollard can at least point to having kicked 11 of the Boks’ points and going on the break from inside his 22. But Le Roux’s form has been a concern for a while now, his trademark mercury replaced by a newfound consistency, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Whether or not to make a change at fullback will weigh heavily on Erasmus. So will the injuries that forced Bongi Mbonambi (hamstring) and Cheslin Kolbe (ankle) to come off the field early.

Given how lucky Wales were to win 20-19 against France, a game in which they were given a red card gift and almost didn’t take it, the Boks will probably go into the semifinal as favourites. 

More ghosts to bury

But the fact that South Africa haven’t beaten Warren Gatland’s team in the four matches since the 2015 World Cup means it has more ghosts to lay to rest before it can contemplate a final against England or defending champions New Zealand.

In all fairness, the Welsh will have their own South African demons to overcome, having never beaten the Springboks in a World Cup match. A late Francois Hougaard try helped the Springboks win 17-16 in a group stage game in 2011, and another late effort by Fourie du Preez knocked Wales out of the tournament in the quarterfinals four years ago.

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While South Africans appear to mistrust the united front presented by their team because of the assault and racism cloud hanging over Eben Etzebeth and the conclusions jumped to by Twitter’s own forensic detective around the Bomb Squad celebrations, the Japanese seem to have taken to the Boks.

The first of the foreign teams to arrive in Japan, the Boks – as a result of being less insular than is usually their wont and Schalk Brits’ audition for a diplomatic post when he retires – seem to have worked themselves into the position of being Japanese’s second-favourite team. Don’t be surprised if that comes in handy when they look their demons in the eye for the second time in a week.

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