Japan heads into Friday’s match against two-time world champion South Africa at Saitama Prefecture’s Kumagaya Rugby Stadium knowing it must find the right balance between attack and defense if it is to repeat its heroics of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
And defense coach Scott Hansen believes his partnership with attack guru Tony Brown is perfect for the style of rugby Japan head coach Jamie Joseph wants the Brave Blossoms to play.
“Tony Brown and I work very closely around how our attack influences our defense and vice versa. And the balance there is critical,” Hansen said Tuesday.
“I love working with Browny. We both have an understanding and synergy of what influences the other, and that is why I think Japanese rugby is special, because of the balance of our game.”
Some have questioned the Brave Blossoms’ decision to play a powerhouse such as South Africa in its final match before the hosts kick off the Rugby World Cup against Russia on Sept. 20 in Tokyo.
But the players are reveling in the chance to take on the Springboks, one of the best teams in the world, and one against whom they have a 100 percent record, courtesy of that famous 34-32 victory four years ago.
“It’s a great opportunity to play against a great opposition,” wing Kenki Fukuoka told Kyodo News. “They obviously think they will never repeat such a loss, and that gives them even more reason to come at us.
“They will know what to expect and will be anticipating what we do. So we will have to overcome what they are thinking. It will help that we also know how they are going to play. They will look to slow down the tempo and use their physicality, so we will have to niggle them and utilize our fitness.”
Fukuoka, who sat out the only previous test match between the two countries, said Japan had improved dramatically since that game in Brighton, England, in part because of the Sunwolves’ involvement in Super Rugby since 2016.
“Our game plan is not the same as four years ago but I am confident in our fitness. It is way, way above what it was in 2015,” he said.
“Super Rugby really helped us, not just in terms of getting used to the physicality but in learning how best to stop big men running at you. We need to play to our strengths such as getting into a low position as quick as possible.”
And once they are in that position, making sure of their first-time tackles.
“Understanding the strengths of South Africa is obviously one of the critical things we need to focus on,” Hansen said.
“And without any doubt stopping the momentum of their big ball carriers will be one of those, and that will be a good challenge for us.”
Hansen said the game would also be a good chance for Japan to get used to the new directives regarding tackle height.
“We have put in a lot of time and effort into the players understanding what tackle is required in the moment,” he said when asked if Japan would look to chop tackle or attack the ball in contact.
“You’re going to have personalities that like to go a wee bit higher but we have spoken about (how) at the World Cup discipline in the tackle height will be vital. We do not want to be giving any opportunities for a referee to make a decision around yellow and red cards.”
“So we have focused a lot on our definition on where the tackle zone is, whether it be on, below or above the ball.”
And he was confident things were on course.
“Every day we’re trying to get better and adapt to the picture in front of us,” Hansen said. “I’m always proud of this group. Every session, the commitment they have to being better and working for each other. … We are happy where we are but we understand totally the challenges we have this weekend and coming weeks.”