Springboks v Japan – Key Battles

Springboks v Japan - Key Battles
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17 October 2019

17 October 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

Springboks v Japan – Key Battles

A cracking clash of captains headlines the key head-to-head battles of Sunday’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final showdown between the Springboks and hosts Japan in Tokyo, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

With a nation behind them, over 70,000 of whom will fill Tokyo Stadium, the Brave Blossoms are primed to produce another inspired performance. They’ve played out of their skins so far to defy the odds and break new ground, winning all four of their pool games – including historic victories over Tier 1 nations Ireland and Scotland – to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time ever.

Last week, Michael Leitch and his team gained a far greater purpose than making Japanese rugby history. They became beacons of hope to the over 70 families who lost loved ones and the countless who’ve been displaced by the devastating Typhoon Hagibis. The raw emotion elevated each player to produce a special performance against the Scots last Sunday and the Springboks should brace for the best, most impassioned version of the Brave Blossoms yet.

We highlight the (probable, teams yet to be announced at the time of writing) key head-to-head battles that’ll have a major bearing on the outcome of this monumental match.

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Players on opposite sides of the form book. In the modern era of mobile front-rowers, Malherbe’s workrate hasn’t been up to par. At scrum time, too, the Springbok tighthead’s been decent rather than dominant.

Many felt the inform Trevor Nyakane should’ve started in the No.3 jersey before he got injured, and with Vincent Koch – known for his strong scrummaging – waiting in the wings, Malherbe needs a big game to vindicate his place in the starting line-up.

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With the hosts thrilling with their high-octane style and scoring some scintillating tries, Inagaki has been a silent assassin up front. Much of the front foot ball the Brave Blossoms have enjoyed can be credited to the 29-year-old loosehead’s good work in the scrums, where his low-binding technique has seen him uproot the likes of Ireland’s Cian Healy and Scotland’s WP Nel.

He’s been considerably better than Malherbe across the park, having made 42 tackles during to pool stages, more than triple that of Malherbe (12), on top of constantly keeping pillar defenders busy with burrowing carries.

The respective skippers are similar in so many ways – inspirational, industrious and intelligent. Proud, passionate and ever-present, they lead their troops by example.

Rassie Erasmus’ managing of Kolisi has been spot on, affording the flank ample game time to regain his groove after having missed South Africa’s triumphant Rugby Championship campaign due to injury. The 28-year-old lifted his game in every pool match and should be at his best come Sunday.

Leitch has been the heart and soul of the Brave Blossoms, THE key figure of their magical campaign and rise leading up to it. One of the stars of the tournament thus far, the 31-year-old’s been terrific in all departments.

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Leitch is to his team of ground-breakers what Francois Pienaar was to the Springboks in their glorious World Cup triumph on home soil in 1995 – the perfect man to lead the way at the perfect time (both on and off the field), a workhorse and cool head in the cauldron.

He was a force to be reckoned with in all four of the hosts’ pool fixtures and you can be sure that he’ll be in the thick of the action and will do everything in his power to lead Japan to what would be their greatest-ever win.

After an underwhelming performance by his high standards in the 23-13 loss to the All Blacks, Vermeulen returned to form in the 49-3 win over Italy. He was particularly prolific on defence, where he won turnovers on the deck and in contact and made some big hits.

The breakdown battle will be especially important in this clash with much of Japan’s offensive playbook relying on quick ball, and with no specialist fetcher in the starting XV, the veteran No.8 is the Springboks’ best ball snatcher, along with Malcolm Marx. The speed of the Japanese will likely see them beat the Boks to rucks, so Vermeulen will have to play a duel role – alternating between challenging for the pill and using his bulk and explosiveness to counter-ruck the hosts off the ball.

Himeno has been the unsung hero in Japan’s back-row, where much of the praise has gone to Leitch and South African-born Lappies Labuschagne. The flanks are fully deserved of the plaudits, but no-one has worked harder with or without the ball for the Brave Blossoms than Himeno, with the 25-year-old ranking third in the tournament in carries with 49 and joint 11th in tackles with 46.

The inside centre contest will primarily be a gainline battle. Specifically, whether or not Nakamura can stop the hard-running De Allende from giving the Springboks go-forward ball. It’s predictable yet effective, as few have been able to stop the Stormers star in his tracks over the course of his career.

At just 1.78m and 84kg, Nakamura will have his hands full against South Africa’s 1.89m, 101kg midfield monster. He’s gotten better defensively as the tournament has progressed. He had a shocker first up against Russia, missing five of the 11 tackles he attempted.

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He was much better against Ireland, making 11 out of 14 in the historic 19-12 win, and tightened up more against the big and physical Samoans, making three out of four.

It’s his performance against Scotland, though, that’ll give him confidence going up against the Bok brute, with the 28-year-old making all 11 of his tackles and winning a turnover to boot.

Will the Springboks’ lethal weapon meet his match on Sunday? That’s certainly the case in the tale of the tape, with Kolbe coming in at 1.7m and 74kg and Fukuoka at 1.75m and 83kg. Similar in size and skillset, don’t blink when these two go toe-to-toe.

Kolbe has been worth his weight in gold for the men in Green and Gold, producing standout performances against the All Blacks and Italy that have many hailing the pocket rocket as the Player of the Tournament thus far.

Japan’s two-try hero in the historic 28-21 win over Scotland, Fukuoka has never been hotter and will be looking to deliver a second Man of the Match performance in a row.

His double against the Scots took his try-scoring tally to four, putting him joint-second in the tournament (along with Argentina’s Julian Montoya) behind teammate Kotaro Matsushima, whose battle against Makazole Mapimpi should be just as electric, and Wales’ Josh Adams.

Fukuoka is just as hard working of a winger than Kolbe, highlighted by his smash-and-grab second try last Sunday, and has better hands in the local conditions than just about anyone (rewatch both of his tries against Scotland).

They seem evenly matched in terms of speed and footwork. Where Kolbe should have a clear advantage, which the Springboks will surely look to capitalise on, is when it comes to contesting high balls.

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