Only those holding professorships in hindsight would argue that Japan’s momentous World Cup victory over South Africa last weekend was even conceivable, let alone on the cards, and even they might not have the brass neck to open their mouths. Karne Hesketh’s overtime try against the two-time champions in Brighton stood the union game on its head and if anything remotely similar happens when the Brave Blossoms meet Scotland at Kingsholm, it will be the biggest story in the whole of international sport.
Eddie Jones, never slow on the uptake, understands this better than most. “Scotland are one of the most established of all rugby nations,” the Japan head coach said as part of his eve-of-Test address. “We’re setting out to show that the order of world rugby can change. It’s certainly a really great chance for us to show that we’re a serious rugby nation.”
Among those already taking them very seriously indeed are the Scots. “They have two strong ball-carriers in the No 8 position and they are exceptional at Nos 9, 10, 13, 14 and 15,” commented Matt Taylor, the team’s defence strategist, who might have worked his way right through the Japan squad had more time been available to him.
South Africa 32 Japan 34 player ratings
South Africa 32 Japan 34 player ratings
1/18 Zane Kirchner - 4/10
Solid under the high ball and skipped past a few defenders with ease but unused in attack for most of the match.
2/18 Lwazi Mvovo - 5/10
Looked threatening on the rare occasion he got the ball but was kept very quiet by the Japanese defence.
3/18 Jesse Kriel - 5/10
Saw very little of the ball and when he got his hands on it Japan shut him down swiftly. Quiet throughout.
Looked sharp considering he has played very little rugby since November. Carried really well and was industrious in defence, but couldn't save his side from an embarrassing defeat.
5/18 Bryan Habana - 3/10
Should have paid admission as he was a spectator for most of the match, it was a pretty anonymous outing for the Toulon man.
6/18 Pat Lambie - 4/10
Kicked well off the tee but struggled to set his backline in motion against a well-organised Japanese outfit. Pollard should start against Samoa.
7/18 Ruan Pienaar - 5/10
Marshaled his forwards well in attack and made a fair few metres with the ball in hand but he couldn't take control behind a pack that were struggling at the breakdown.
8/18 Tendai Mtawarira - 3/10
Seriously struggled in the scrum against Hatakeyama and ineffective with the ball in hand. Made just two tackles and rarely got over the gainline.
9/18 Bismarck du Plessis - 3/10
Caught out in defence several times and missed a few tackles. Central to the Boks' success at the lineout and in the maul but he did conceded four penalties which proved costly.
10/18 Jannie du Plessis - 3/10
Missed three tackles and was part of a front row that were surprisingly dismantled by the Japanese.
11/18 Nick de Jager - 6/10
Made some big carries and showed impressive pace for a man mountain when he went over for a try in the 43rd minute. Commanding and consistent at the lineout but didn't make much of a contribution in defence.
12/18 Victor Matfield - 7/10
Typically lead the lineout with authority and was dynamic and destructive in the loose. The Japanese struggled to cope with his rampaging runs and offloads.
13/18 Pieter Du Toit - 6/10
A solid performance from the openside but is partially responsible for the Boks' inability to recycle possession at the ruck as he was often not quick enough to the clear out. Outplayed by the opposing back row.
14/18 Francois Louw - 5/10
Scored the first try from a rolling maul but failed to impose himself on the breakdown. Didn't make much of a contribution in the loose.
15/18 Schalk Burger - 8/10
Burger was South Africa's stand out player. Troubled the Japanese defence with some huge carries. Cleaned up well at the base of a retreating scrum and won four turnovers. Racked up the most tackles (for RSA) too with 11.
Had an immediate impact off the bench when he battered through two tackles and galloped over but was unable to bolster a struggling South African scrum.
17/18 Fourie du Preez - 7/10
Should start next week against Samoa. Seized control when he came on and set his sizeable pack in motion with real authority.
18/18 Handre Pollard - 7/10
Another player who should be considered for the starting line up against Samoa. Made a brilliant break shortly after coming on and showcased his attacking prowess.
“We’ve been watching them for a long time now, all our focus has been on this game for the last eight weeks and we understand some of their patterns, so we won’t be sitting back and watching them play. But they’re well coached, well conditioned and they’ve just knocked off the No 3 team in the world. They played exceptionally well against the Boks.”
For the record, the back-row carriers name-checked by Taylor were the Tongan-born Amanaki Lelei Mafi, who made such an impact off the bench four days ago and starts this afternoon, and the New Zealand-born Hendrik Tui, who began the game against the South Africans and is hoping to “do a Mafi” in front of a full house in Gloucester. As for the backs singled out by Taylor, the brilliant scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and the goal-kicking full-back Ayumu Goromaru are among the most talked-about players of the tournament to date.
Japan’s heroics on the Sussex coast made a complete mess of the world rankings, although arithmetically deduced positioning is hardly a top priority for the leading nations at this precise point in proceedings. England, Wales and Ireland all moved up a place to third, fourth and fifth respectively, while the Boks slipped three places to sixth.
Most amusingly of all, under the circumstances, was Japan’s own rise to 11th place, one rung up from the Scots. Quite what the late Bill McLaren would have made of this chaos, God alone knows.
On the face of it, there must be a strong likelihood that the positions will be reversed soon enough. Scotland have yet to play in this tournament and are therefore as fresh as daisies. Japan? For all their fitness – and on the evidence of Brighton, they are as fit as any side in the draw – they must be hanging. The effects of full-on confrontations with a side as big and physical as the Springboks tend to last weeks rather than days and while the Asian champions tapped into huge rushes of adrenalin in winning that opening match, the degree of mental application needed to complete the deed must have exhausted them.
Yet Jones, never lacking in positivity, could be heard arguing yesterday that his team were “definitely fitter than the Scots” and would “win if they were good enough”. He credited his opponents’ head coach, Vern Cotter, with reintroducing the Six Nations wooden spoonists to a “Scottish way of playing the game” but quickly fell back on his favourite pre-match tactic of winding up the enemy with a few well-chosen barbs. If Jones was a fence, you would struggle to climb over him without ripping your clothes to shreds.
“We’re playing in Gloucester, one of the great spiritual centres of the game in England,” he said. “People here know their rugby. They also wear red and white when they’re supporting their team, so they can wear red and white again this time and support us. And we know the English don’t like the Scots, so that’s another bonus.”
The West Country weather may not be as kind to Japan as the conditions in Sussex were at the weekend: the phrase “shirtsleeve order” this close to the Forest of Dean generally refers to the wearing of a lightweight anorak rather than a full-length raincoat.
What is more, Scotland played some bright attacking rugby during their recent warm-up programme and can boast match-winning talents in the full-back Stuart Hogg, the outside-half Finn Russell and the scrum-half Greig Laidlaw – the player identified by Jones as the heartbeat of the side.
Yet Japan are more confident now than at any point in a World Cup history stretching back to the inaugural tournament in 1987. Coming into this competition, they had just one solitary victory to their name from 24 matches - against the mighty Zimbabwe almost a quarter of a century ago.
In doubling that tally in Brighton, they increased their profile a hundredfold. Should they win this afternoon, they will put one foot in the quarter-finals and leave Scotland, South Africa and Samoa scrapping for a single place. Whoever would have thought it?Reuse content