It’s not usually a question one would ask, but one that seems to be floating around rugby groups this week: “how can South Africa beat Japan?” Only a few months ago, and despite the blip in 2015, Japan wouldn’t have been considered a huge threat to any tier-one side, but Japan has more than proved they’re no longer in the lower division of world rugby nations, knocking off the likes of Ireland, Scotland, and Samoa on their way to the top of Pool A in this year’s tournament.
But, for those avid rugby followers, it will actually come as no surprise. While many of the nations, most notably the northern hemisphere duo of Ireland and Scotland, have had dips in form this past season; Japan has been steadily climbing. They were ruthless in their Pacific Nations Cup campaign, ripping apart the likes of the USA, Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji while the world kept its eyes on rugby’s usual big-names; and while they weren’t exactly testing their mettle against the biggest of opponents, they were sharpening their blade.
Japan’s big loss to South Africa in this year’s warm-up match ahead of the World Cup should be considered as much of a fluke as the Springboks’ loss in 2015. Yes, South Africa is a superior team, but not in all facets, and the scoreline didn’t resemble the damage that Japan can cause – as was the case with their efforts against Ireland and Scotland.
So, what makes Japan so dangerous? Head coach Jamie Joseph has applied a similar philosophy to Japan that helped the Highlanders to a Super Rugby win in 2015, and its all built on speed and accuracy.
Japan play at an immense tempo, prioritising their running and handling abilities (racking up 559 running metres and throwing over 200 passes against Scotland), which sees them going back and forth between a narrow blind side and into the first or second channel on the open side before going wide.
But while it seems like a simple strategy, it’s the speed that they do it at which makes it effective. Japan know that they don’t have the biggest or most powerful forwards in the world, so they play smart and nullify the power battle by not even competing in it. They clear the ball quickly from every ruck, with scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare (he is class) doing a fantastic job of always scooping up a precisely and quickly-placed ball, and sending it out without hesitation. This simple accuracy gives Japan the speed they need to exploit slow and lazy defenders, while also avoiding any counter-rucking opportunities by the opponents – the one Achilles heel that Japan seems to have.
Scotland barely counter-rucked against Japan, but when they did, they actually made some turnovers and slowed down Japan’s frenetic attacking speed. The Boks would have acknowledged this and will likely be attacking that breakdown with absolute ruthlessness, with the likes of RG Snyman, Duane Vermeulen, and Kolisi likely to contest most, if not all, ruck situations.
Possession is everything with Japan, as the stats show how they’ve managed to starve their opponents of the ball. They’re not going to kick it back, or give it up very easily, so the Boks should be wary of playing a kicking game and allowing Japan to hold onto the ball for a few phases. They’re easily the fittest team in the competition, and as showcased during this pool stage, ran just about every team ragged. South Africa needs to prevent the Japanese from keeping possession (as the win-with-a-solid-defence approach won’t work this time around), while utilising the Boks’ massive pack to outmuscle the Japanese forwards and backs.
The Springboks’ have their shortcomings, but the immense power of the forward pack is not one of them, and Erasmus knows this, stacking the bench completely with forwards barring two backline substitutes. They’re going to come in hard, fast, and attempt to punish the Japanese forwards.
But, Japan will get the ball at some point, and it’ll be up to the Boks to ensure they adapt faster than they ever had. The blitz defence has worked well against the likes of New Zealand and Australia, but they’ll have to be careful of not overcommitting the line-speed against Japan, because they have some elusive and clever ball-players in their backline.
While everyone going on about Fukuoka and Matsushima (they are sublime), outside centre Tim Lafaele has been a revelation for Japan in this World Cup, having a crucial hand in setting up 3 of Japan’s tries against Scotland. With Fukuoka’s second try against the Scots, it was Lafaele’s skill and vision which delivered it on a silver-platter for the speedy winger. Lafaele had enough time on the ball thanks to the quick delivery from his inside backs, allowing him to watch Finn Russell (defending at fullback) rush up into the line, and as Lafaele is about to pass, he instead makes a split-second decision to put the kick through past Russell for Fukuoka to chase. Jamie Joseph has obviously given them the go-ahead to play these opportunities when they present themselves, and Lafaele is a dangerous package once the ball moves past Tamura. They’ve got a good system with 3 genuine ball players in the backline, and a ton of pace to capitalise on chances.
As lethal and skillfull as the Japanese are, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to halt the sheer force of South Africa’s forward pack. With that said though, realistically, it’s unlikely Japan fancied themselves in a quarter-final position (their Scotland scalp was likely their primary goal for the tournament), so they’re essentially in the ‘bonus round’ now, have little to lose, and a metric ton of support… which in itself is a dangerous prospect.