Preview: Japan v South Africa
WORLD CUP WARM-UP: Japan is the only country that has a 100 percent success record against South Africa’s Springboks.
Only one other country has a positive success record against the Springboks – New Zealand and that success rate is 59 percent.
But then the All Blacks have played the Springboks 98 times, Japan only once – a historic occasion.
It will be four years ago, on September 19, when, on neutral ground, Japan created one of the biggest surprises in the history of world rugby.
They beat the Springboks 34-32 at the Community Stadium in Brighton in a Pool B match at the 2015 World Cup.
Of the players who played in that match in 2015, Michael Leitch, Luke Thompson, Yu Tamura, Kotaro Matsushima, Amanaki Mafi and Keita Inagaki are back in the Japan side for this match.
Several Springboks got onto the field in Brighton – Jesse Kriel, Handré Pollard, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane and Eben Etzebeth, who made his Test debut.
Leitch and Louw scored tries in that match.
Japan’s most capped player, hooker Shota Horie, would probably have played, but has a neck injury, not a good idea for a hooker.
This match on Japanese soil in 2019 is not part of a competition. It is a warm-up match before the World Cup.
Not much notice would be taken of it were it not for the upset of 2015.
Even if the Springboks were to win by 100 points, their success rate against Japan will be only 50 percent.
But they are not going to win by 100 points.
The Brave Blossoms have gathered strength by the inclusion of players born abroad – 14 out of 31 in their World Cup squad.
The foreigners are from five countries – New Zealand (five), Tonga (four), South Africa (three), Australia and Samoa.
Two of the three South Africans have recognisable South African names – Pieter (Lappies) Labuschagne and Wimpie van der Walt, who will not be playing on Friday.
The third looks more Japanese – 26-year-old Kotaro Matsushima, who was born in Pretoria to a Zimbabwean father, who died some time ago, and a Japanese mother.
He was educated in Japan, but then went back to South Africa, joined the Sharks Academy and played for the Sharks in age-group matches before going off to play in Australia and for Japan in 33 Tests as a fullback/wing.
Since 2015, Japan has played 12 matches against Tier One countries.
The Brave Blossoms won just one of those matches, 34-17 against Italy, and drew 23-all with France at Stade de France.
They were not disgraced in the others, scoring 30 points against Australia, New Zealand and Wales. Wales won just 33-30 at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
They have also had the Sunwolves playing in Super Rugby for four seasons, and so the Springboks will not be strangers to them.
Japan is now ranked 10th on World Rugby’s ranking, five places below South Africa.
The Japanese are not push-overs, and Rassie Erasmus, the Springbok coach, has shown his respect by choosing what may just be his best side, seeing this match as match practice for the Springboks’ first match in the World Cup – against New Zealand’s All Blacks.
The Brave Blossoms will not expect to dominate the set pieces, but will expect to have a good chance of winning their own ball.
But they will be best of broken play, making the most of half-chances to go speeding and swerving off from whatever place on the field that the chance occurs.
But Japan my not find the aerial bombardment off Handré Pollard’s right boot and Francois de Klerk’s left boot comfortable to deal with. Nor will the backs find it easy to deal with the defensive pattern the Springboks with Lukhanyo Am to lead them.
The weather could also play a part – hot and humid, which could make it hard to keep up the energy and could also produce a slippery ball, as happens in Durban.
Players to Watch
Cheslin Kolbe, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the rugby field, the will-o-the-wisp, now you have him, now you don’t, is always a thrill to watch. He is the player who plays the way the Japanese backs play but only better. Kenki Fukuoka, Japan’s left wing and Kolbe’s immediate opponent, is elusive and fast, and will take some watching. Pieter-Steph du Toit, who is playing his 50th Test, is always worth watching and could just be the most influential player on the field.
Head to Head
Captain versus Captain, loose forward versus loose forward – Michael Leitch versus Siya Kolisi. 62-cap Leitch scored a try in Brighton, 42-cap Kolisi came on as a substitute for Pieter-Steph du Toit. Both are admirable, lead-by-example men. Elusive Back Three versus elusive Back Three – William Tupou, Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka versus Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi. Kolbe versus Kenki. They are both Sevens internationals, both fast and elusive. Kenki is 26 and has 28 caps, Kolbe 25 and has nine caps. This could just be a thrilling contest. The battle for the ball at breakdowns will depend on how well the Japan tight five can stand up to the Springbok tight five, with sensible money on the tough Springboks. Goal-kicker versus goal-kicker – Handré Pollard versus Yu Tamura. Pollard is substantially better than his Japan counterpart.
2015: Japan won 34-32, Brighton (World Cup pool match)
Prediction: The Springboks to win by some 20 points and take home the cup for the match – the LipovitanD Challenge Cup.
Japan: 15 William Tupou, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Michael Leitch (captain), 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Koo Ji-won, 2 Atsushi Sakate, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Takuya Kitade, 17 Isileli Nakajima, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 James Moore, 20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 21 Yutaka Nagare, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Ataata Moeakiola.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Rudolph Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Jesse Kriel.
Date: Friday, September 6
Venue: Kumagaya Stadium, Saitama, Japan
Kick-off: 19.15 (12.15 SA time)
Expected weather: Partly cloudy and hot with a high of 34°C and a “low” of 24°C with a chance of rain and 40 percent humidity.
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)