Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has warned his players to expect a brutal onslaught from South Africa’s forwards when they go head to head in Sunday’s Rugby World Cup quarterfinal.
But the New Zealander also hinted that the Brave Blossoms could have a trick up their sleeve as they prepare to make their first-ever appearance in the knockout round.
“What is clear is what South Africa are going to do,” Joseph said Friday, as he named his team to face the Springboks at Tokyo Stadium. “It’s clear because of their selection, opting to select six extra forwards on the bench. It’s not unique — we’ve done that before as well — but it’s a clear sign how they’re going to approach the match, using the forwards and being very physical.
“The consistency of their game, around giving the opposition the ball and using their defense and their big forwards to pressure, is a clear sign of their intent. I guess that’s what we’ve been preparing for all week. What’s not so clear is what we’re going to do, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Joseph made only one change to his starting lineup from the team that beat Scotland 28-21 in Yokohama last Sunday, with fullback Ryohei Yamanaka replacing William Tupou in the No. 15 shirt after Tupou failed a head injury assessment.
The Brave Blossoms are in uncharted territory after topping Pool A with a perfect record of four wins out of four, but Joseph is pleased with his players’ attitude as they prepare to face two-time champion South Africa in what will be the biggest game of their careers.
“The players have really taken over,” said Joseph. “It’s a really good sign as a coach, because when you feel a little bit redundant, you know there is real belief and confidence in your team. That’s what I’m feeling as the head coach. We’ve grown in the last five or six weeks. We’ve grown mentally. With those improvements in our confidence, our game is improving.”
South Africa qualified for the quarterfinals after finishing second in Pool B, losing its opening game 23-13 to New Zealand before beating Namibia, Italy and Canada without breaking a sweat.
South Africa was the first visiting team to arrive in Japan, with the Springboks taking on the Brave Blossoms in a warmup match in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, on Sept. 6. The Springboks comfortably won that game 41-7, but Japan second-row forward Luke Thompson said Friday that his side has improved immeasurably since then.
“It was six or seven weeks ago, and our team is completely different now,” said Thompson. “We have improved and our confidence is a lot higher now. We learned a lot from the previous game, but this is a quarterfinal. It’s a one-off game. It’s hard to compare. We learned a lot from that game, and that game really prepared us well for this tournament.”
South Africa winger Makazole Mapimpi scored a hat trick of tries in that previous meeting, while his partner on the other wing, Cheslin Kolbe, bagged two. Kolbe in particular has impressed at the World Cup, and Japan winger Kenki Fukuoka is looking forward to locking horns with him on Sunday.
“Smaller players like us have to think about what we can do to compete on the world stage and make a contribution,” the 175-cm Fukuoka said of Kolbe, who stands just 170 cm but has scored two tries at the World Cup so far. “It’s a pleasure to watch him do that, and I’m looking forward to competing against him on Sunday.
“We’ve been able to show our rugby to the world at this World Cup. We have confidence as a team, and we are well prepared to deal with South Africa and what they plan to do to beat us. From that perspective, the way we play in this match will be different from the previous games.”
Hanging over the match is also the specter of Japan’s historic 34-32 win over the Springboks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
Four players in Japan’s starting lineup for Sunday also began that match in Brighton four years ago, and captain Michael Leitch believes the team is still reaping the rewards of that victory.
“If you look at four years ago, Japan hadn’t won a test match in 20-odd years, so it was a different mentality going into the World Cup and we managed to win three,” he said. “Now the team’s mentality is different, and we go into test matches believing we can win if we do our jobs properly.
“Our first goal was to get out of the pool and we’ve achieved that. Now we’ve got to shift the goalposts again and try to win this quarterfinal against South Africa. The country is behind us and they’re really excited. Every game for us is a final. We’ve treated every game as if it could be our last, so there’s nothing different against South Africa this weekend.”