I woke up at 5am Saturday morning, hoping to see Fiji stick it to the poms. Unfortunately they cocked it up, so I resigned myself to believing that this World Cup might just play out with no surprises.
How wrong I was.
Japan were absolutely courageous in their defeat of the mighty Springboks, in what I think of as one of the greatest upsets in sporting history. They didn’t just get lucky either, they earned this victory. Numerous times the Springboks gave the Brave Blossoms a smack on the nose, only for the angry dog of Japanese rugby to snap back with a nasty bite to the hand.
We’ll be looking at Japan’s 2 tries in the final 15 minutes of the match to try and understand just what the bloody hell happened?
The Empire Strikes Back
While Japan played outstanding throughout the entire match, the key moment was the beautiful set piece try in the 68th minute.
This came after the Springboks had scored a try, which many thought would be the opening of the floodgates. It’s a well worked move and executed perfectly. But doesn’t it look familiar?
It’s the exact same play… only 2 months ago.
The only difference in Japan’s play was that it started from further out, so South Africa’s fullback (Zane Kirchner) was not in the defensive line. This small difference could be the source of all the confusion in South Africa’s midfield that prevented them from learning from their mistake.
Harumichi Tatekawa takes a flat ball to the line and is successful at committing Handre Pollard, as the other South Africans are unable to get across in time. Similar to the Australian try, we can see that Japan’s blind winger (Kotaro Matsushima) has come into the play to create a 4 on 3 in the midfield. South Africa need to make good decisions and slide correctly in order to shut this down, which is expected from the midfield of a tier 1 nation. Tatekawa has two options available: Male Sa’u running the inside line between Pollard and Jean de Villiers; and, the behind ball to Kosei Ono and Matsushima.
Tatekawa sees that de Villiers has Sa’u well covered and decides to throw it behind to Ono. De Villliers does a good job of not over-comitting to Sa’u and sliding his attention to the second line threat. At this stage, with the inside threat of Tatekawa and Sa’u gone, South Africa can bring Kirchner into the line and mark up man on man, provided Bryan Habana rotates to fullback from the blind wing. However, de Villiers makes a shocking decision and slides onto Ono instead of Matsushima.
At this stage, de Villiers can still easily cover Matsushima. Unfortunately for South Africa (and fortunately for everyone else in the world!), he doesn’t. I don’t know why de Villiers marks up on Ono instead of Matsushima, but there are several possibilities:
1. De Villiers is old, tired and simply made a mistake, whether it be not seeing Matsushima or making a wrong decision in who to mark.
2. Perhaps he and Jesse Kriel are looking to slide one more across so Kirchner does not have to join the line, ensuring that they have protection against any grubber or chip kicks to ample space in behind. If so, then why isn’t Pollard and the rest of the team working hard to slide, and where the fuck is Bryan Habana? (actually, apply that to the entire test).
3. Kriel was not talking or de Villiers was not listening.
All three point to a lack unity and communication in the midfield.
After the LINEBREAK, South Africa are in trouble. But I’ve seen teams recover from far worse with good scramble defense. Coenraad Oosthuizen, a front rower, is chasing hard but doesn’t stand a chance. Fourie du Preez and Siya Kolisi on the other hand, are having a jog and don’t seem to care. In addition, Lwazi Mvovo (apparently the fastest man on the field) is in no hurry to get back and help cut down the options. This leaves Kirchner as the last man standing and he doesn’t trust the covering defenders. In the Australian try, Marcel Coetzee worked his ass off to tackle Adam Ashley-Cooper. A similar effort here from du Preez and Kolisi would have allowed Kirchner (the last man standing) to hold off Matushima and mark Ayumu Goromaru instead, saving a try.
I have no idea how many times I have watched this try, but I know it’s a lot.
It’s a well worked try but I don’t think there was a set strategy they were following, just pure ambition and heart. The key part of this try is the 2 phases before it, and South Africa’s reactionary defense.
With South Africa only have 4 players on the far side, Tatekawa makes a good carry, committing 2 of those defenders to the tackle. Habana makes a poor decision by trying to pilfer the ball, leaving South Africa even shorter on the far side. Adriaan Strauss comes around the ruck to piller up.
Michael Leitch folds around the corner, to create a 2 on 1 against Kirchner, as Strauss has to stand next to the ruck to defend against any dart by Atsushi Hiwasa. Du Preez is busy ruck watching and does not send players around to the far side to stop the threat. Leitch gets the ball and drives it towards the line, spurred on by seemingly the entire crowd. Unfortunately, he is brought down by a fantastic cover tackle by Strauss, but the damage has been done. The South African defense is purely instinctual and reactionary, with players only looking at the ball and the immediate threat, rather than operating as a system.
South Africa have brought 8 players to the 15m channel which only had 1 player a mere 3 seconds before. Japan fling it back towards the space and from these 8 South African players, Kriel is the only player who has bothered to look up and move outside the 15m line.
South Africa are in big trouble here, with both the short and long options looking good. Tatekawa fires a fantastic long ball to Amanaki Mafi, where Japan will have a 3 on 2 situation with over half the field’s width available. South Africa have two options available to shut this down: Either Pollard slides and tackles Mafi in a 1 on 1 situation, or Kriel shoots up and tackles Mafi before he can shift the ball away. Even then, Mafi has the option of offloading because both Pollard and Kriel are very isolated in this midfield, whilst Japan has runners everywhere.
While the first angle looks like Kriel has shot up, this angle shows that Pollard is just not working hard enough to slide in defense. Due to the massive 2 on 1 threat facing JP Pieterson if Mafi gets the ball away, Kriel is forced to make a ball and all tackle to prevent any offloads and certain defeat. Mafi gives him a big ‘don’t argue‘ that Dean Mumm would be proud of and starts heading towards the line. Pieterson is now worried about Mafi as well as Sa’u and delays his slide onto Karne Hesketh.
Too much so. Mafi executes a good pass that allows Hesketh to dive over in the corner. There is still some work to do but Hesketh does well to go hard, low and early to prevent Pieterson from making any decent attempt at a try saving tackle. I thought at first that he should have transferred the ball to his left arm but what he actually does is hold it in both arms (nfl style) to make sure he doesn’t drop that sucker.
Japan earned this victory. They had the belief and heart to go all the way, which is a standard trait in Japanese games. What was different this time, was that they had the execution of a tier 1 nation.
As for South Africa, they need to sort out their midfield defense. Either de Villiers is too old, Pollard doesn’t work hard enough to slide, or Kriel doesn’t communicate well enough. They could also learn a thing or two about playing with courage from Japan.