South Africa ended Japan’s phenomenal run at the Rugby World Cup with a 26-3 win in Sunday night’s quarterfinal.
Japan, which was playing a World Cup knockout match for the first time ever, fell behind to an early Makazole Mapimpi try at Tokyo Stadium before a Yu Tamura penalty sent the Brave Blossoms into halftime trailing by just two points.
But the Springboks, who are looking to win the trophy for the third time, turned the screw in the second half with three penalties from the boot of Handre Pollard, before two tries in the space of four minutes made the game safe for South Africa.
The Springboks will now look forward to a semifinal against Wales in Yokohama on Oct. 27, while Japan can reflect on a hugely successful campaign that saw it beat Russia, Ireland, Samoa and Scotland and reach the quarterfinals for the first time.
“I’m just really proud of the Japanese team,” said Japan head coach Jamie Joseph. “All of the players. Some of the players didn’t even play in a game, and that’s what it takes to build a really good team. I’d like to thank the fans. They’ve been a massive support for us, directly in the stadiums and indirectly in and around the hotels. The players understood that and it really helped us.
“The last five minutes of this test match for me, really, pictures the type of team this is. We were down by 20-odd points and we had a never-say-die attitude and the ability to keep on getting up. Guys have got broken ribs, guys have come back off the bench with injuries. I’m really proud to be their coach.”
Japan looked far from overwhelmed in a close first half despite Mapimpi’s fourth-minute try, but South Africa’s power was just too much for the Brave Blossoms and second-half tries from Faf de Klerk and Mapimpi finally ended the contest.
“To be honest, I’m really proud to be the captain of this team,” said Japan captain Michael Leitch. “Jamie took over the team three years ago and we have been doing everything since then in order to win. We gave it all in today’s game. South Africa played really well tonight and showed their quality in the scrums and mauls. But even so, we still fought for the whole 80 minutes, and that is the strength of this team.”
South Africa took just minutes to open the scoring, driving the Japan scrum back before De Klerk fed Mapimpi, who broke through two tackles down the left wing before touching down in the corner. Pollard missed the conversion.
The Springboks were then temporarily reduced to 10 men when Tendai Mtawarira was yellow-carded for a tip tackle on Keita Inagaki, and Japan looked lively in his absence. A series of exhilarating attacks failed to get the Brave Blossoms on the scoreboard, but Tamura eventually kicked a penalty in the 19th minute to reduce the deficit to two points.
Japan had a lucky escape when Lukhanyo Am’s offload to Mapimpi with the try line at his mercy failed to come off in the 35th minute, and again when Damian de Allende had a try ruled out in the final action of the first half.
Pollard slotted two penalties early in the second half to edge South Africa closer in front, although the Springbok No. 10 missed another attempt in the 58th minute.
Pollard did hit the mark with another penalty in the 63rd minute, however, before South Africa landed the killer blow three minutes later. The Springboks pack drove Japan back, Malcolm Marx broke away, and the substitute found De Klerk for the scrumhalf to dive over the line.
South Africa then picked off a tiring Japan on the counterattack as Mapimpi scored his second try of the game in the 70th minute.
“We’re happy to make the semifinals,” said South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus. “We were very nervous at halftime. We were nervous going into this match playing against Japan and their home support, and the way they played against Ireland and Scotland. They were definitely building momentum and we were sure it was going to be a tough match.
“Going into halftime only being up a few points and leaving a few tries out there, there was definitely a bit of a lull and a quietness in the changing room. But I think being together for 17 weeks, the guys knew which buttons to push to get ourselves out of that lull and come and produce in the second half. We’re very proud of that and now we’re into the semifinals.”