Can Japan make history and are Wales on track to make their own?

Posted: October 18, 2019 in Rugby World Cup 2019
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While it may be hard to top events on Saturday, these two quarter-finals will provide plenty of drama, and certainly in the case of Japan an expectant host nation will watch to see if their heroes can make this tournament one where dreams really do come true. The form books may be even less kind to the two underdogs, Japan and France than it will be to Saturday’s wild cards Ireland and Australia, but in many ways that makes these contests all the more fascinating. Japan have shown the world that this is a special team that still may have some surprises up their sleeves and who are not short on belief. Meanwhile France have shown flashes of brilliance that still lead us to believe that we haven’t yet seen their traditional big game in a World Cup yet, 2015 being the only notable exception to that trend where there weren’t any.

The favorites for Sunday’s encounters Wales and South Africa, do enter this stage of the competition with a certain degree of confident swagger that is well justified. Wales have looked the part from day one, and despite being clearly rattled at times by Fiji they still managed to produce arguably one of the best games of the pool stages in their thriller against Australia. Wales look the part and a have a quiet air of assurance about them that France will struggle to deal with. Wales have got the basics right and it is a tight and well drilled unit that is fully conversant with their roles as a group and as individuals within it.

South Africa may have come short against New Zealand in their opening match, but they put up one hell of a fight in the process, and the All Blacks were left in no doubt that they had just experienced a “genuine Test match” of the highest order. South Africa then went on to dispatch the rest of their Pool B opponents with relative ease, though like New Zealand were not overly challenged in the process, something that Japan will have an edge over them in as they have had to fight tooth and nail for all four of their Pool wins. Then there’s the small matter of the “Brighton ghosts”. South Africa will be out for revenge and the 2019 edition of the the Springboks is dramatically different to that which Japan encountered four years ago. Better coached and with a raft of players who can match the raw energy and excitement levels that Japan offers, South Africa are a different beast in 2019 and justifiably have their eyes set on the main prize.

So here’s what got us talking in relation to Sunday’s proceedings.

Wales vs France – Sunday, October 20th – Oita

These two sides have an interesting history in that the result is never a given between them, no matter what the form book says. France invariably give Wales a game to think about, and in recent years have posed the Men in Red with some serious questions come half time. Wales however do seem to be better at reinventing themselves against France in the final forty minutes, while France struggle to understand that what was working for the first forty has clearly been found out and undone by the Welsh. Herein lies France’s biggest problem of the last four years – they simply aren’t an eighty minute team. Wales on the other hand are and if anything tend to play their best rugby in the final forty minutes.

Wales have looked composed even under adversity such as against Australia and Fiji this tournament, and that Welsh defense just gets better and better as the clock winds up to the final whistle. One thing it seems you can’t do against the Welsh is wear them down, as if anything they become more resolute and impervious to the effects of fatigue as the the full time whistle approaches. If you’re going to catch Wales napping, you’ve essentially got to do it in the first twenty minutes and then spend the rest of your game keeping them at bay and not allowing them to return the compliment.

France on the other hand have, much like Australia, got the job done but not looked overly flash in the process. Sure their opening game against Argentina showed off some outstanding attacking skills, particularly through center Damian Penaud, but they got an almighty fright in the second half and in all honesty were lucky to win that match. While they comfortably dispatched a plucky USA side, they almost came horribly unstuck against Tonga, and were spared the potential embarrassment of having to face England courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis. In short, most people have written France off in this tournament, but to use the well worn cliche that is when they are at their most dangerous.

Welsh resolve is at its most convincing in Alun-Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric – something France simply don’t have

If you ever wanted an analogy between Rugby and Marvel Super Hero comics then look no further than Wales. Welsh Captain Alun-Wyn Jones and flanker Justin Tipuric could easily move to Hollywood after this World Cup and take roles as Thor and Ironman in the next Marvel blockbuster. These two characters are completely indestructible and can be depended on to pull their team from the brink of disaster consistently for eighty minutes. In short, you can’t and will not break them. In France’s offerings we see none of the same qualities, despite Captain Guilhem Guirado’s inspirational leadership and complete disregard for his own safety. Not only are Jones and Tipuric extraordinarily skilled players in their own right, their on field heroics are such a key part of providing motivation to the rest of this Welsh squad, that in our opinion they are Wales’ two most important players.

We have trouble seeing France gain much in the way of parity in any of the forward battles

France have some quality players in their forward pack make no mistake. Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado and number eight Louis Picamoles are world class through and through and there is some genuinely promising talent in the likes of second rower Bernard le Roux and back rowers Gregory Alldritt, Wenceslas Lauret and Charles Ollivon. However, as a unit we struggle to see them matching up to a capable Welsh second row and back row that has been rock solid and highly dynamic so far in this tournament. The essential difference in the two sides is this Welsh pack plays as a finely tuned unit whereas France play as an eclectic collection of brilliant individuals. Without any kind of cohesive forward dominance France will struggle to unleash the mercurial talents of world class backs like Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud and Virimi Vakatawa.

While he’s often had his critics there is no doubt that Dan Biggar has got better and better this year and has ultimately negated the loss of Gareth Anscombe, while Rhys Patchell has been a noteworthy understudy

The loss of Gareth Anscombe prior to the tournament caused a genuine stir amongst Welsh supporters and we felt some rather unjustified criticisms leveled at Dan Biggar his replacement. We’ve always held Biggar in high regard and when he is on song, which he has been this tournament, there are few who can better him in terms of reliability. Furthermore, Rhys Patchell has really risen to the occasion as Biggar and Anscombe’s understudy. In short, despite the cries of alarm prior to the World Cup, we’d argue that Wales are in exceptionally rude health at fly half.

The most entertaining contest on the park on Sunday – the battle of the scrum halves

Both France and Wales arrive in Oita with a full deck in the scrum half department. Gareth Davies for Wales and Antoine Dupont for France are excitement machines through and through, and the kind of players who in the blink of an eye can change the momentum of the game in their side’s favor. Davies excels at being the intercept king while Dupont’s eye for opportunity and some searing breaks that suddenly open up an entire pitch are becoming the stuff of legends. Expect both sides to monitor their opposition nines with the utmost of vigilance. There are also some very handy replacements for both sides on the bench, though we’d argue that France’s Baptiste Serin has yet to really hit his stride in the tournament and had an absolute shocker against Tonga.

Remember this guy?

No not number 7, the great Olivier Magne, but number 14 Philippe Bernat-Salles and the try that rang around the world in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, as France who had essentially been written off, knocked the highly vaunted All Blacks out of the tournament in the semi-finals. Well we think his successor in the number 14 jersey for Sunday, Damian Penaud has all the same qualities if not more. For us he is the embodiment of those exciting French backs of yesteryear, and if Wales give him just a sniff of space then you could well end up seeing a repeat of 1999. On the big stage it will be the biggest Test his opposite Welsh number, youngster Josh Adams, has had to date in what is turning out to be an equally promising career.

Verdict

Despite rumors circulating in the press that dissension within the French camp is rife, one shouldn’t read to much into it, as France being France there is always some sort of sideshow going on. Despite all of this France somehow always manage to come to the party for the big moments at World Cup time, even if 2015 was an exception to the rule. There is still enough raw talent in this French squad to upset the best laid plans of the top sides. Wales though simply look too polished to really allow the form books to be tossed out the window. There still seems to be the fundamental disconnect between the French coaching staff and the players and that is what undid them in 2015 and history certainly looks set to repeat itself this year. It still should be an interesting and entertaining match spiced with the “what if France shows up” perennial question. For us though Wales look like the finished product and are still the contenders and dark horse to lift the trophy they were when they headed into the tournament. As a result we’re handing this to Wales by sixteen points!

Japan vs South Africa – Sunday, October 20th – Tokyo

As much as we love the underdog here at the Lineout, we have to admit we really didn’t see this coming. Japan’s success in this tournament has been a glorious advertisement for the game globally and we have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Brave Blossoms extraordinary journey to this point. And brave they certainly have been, in slaying the Irish tiger and the Scottish lion. What’s next for this extraordinary band of rugby players buoyed on by 126 million ecstatic Japanese? To say that they have exceeded their country’s expectations and got every neutral rugby fan across the globe onto their bandwagon for the ride is an understatement, making Sunday’s match up with South Africa’s Springboks one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures in the tournament’s history.

South Africa, apart from their initial do or die tussle with New Zealand at the start of the tournament have had a much easier ride to Sunday’s quarter final than the hosts. One thing they may well be wary of though is the fact that the last match they played against a brave Canadian side was almost two weeks ago. Having to sit around and watch the country you’re in go ballistic for the team you are to face in the quarter finals, without any game time under your belt in the process must have been slightly disquieting no matter how professional your setup is. How much will nerves ultimately play a part in Sunday’s proceedings as the Springboks will have had to watch all the momentum favor their opponents heading into the match. The flip side of that coin is that with all the attention on Japan, the Springboks have been allowed to go about their business quietly out of the spotlight, and in terms of pressure then that is all on Japan.

Can Japan really out muscle a Springbok tight five that takes physicality to a level that they just haven’t encountered yet?

Ireland were off the boil physically against Japan, so although they had the edge on paper they failed to make it count. Scotland were simply at sixes and sevens for too much of the match as a superbly drilled Japanese unit from a technical point of view got the better of them. We don’t feel that will be the case on Sunday, as South Africa pack a formidable front row with an equally capable unit on the bench. Although Japanese Hooker Shota Horie has been outstanding he will meet his match in Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx. Meanwhile Eben Etzebeth in particular will bring an edge and physicality to the engine room in the second row and the lineout that Japan will struggle to contend with, and expect to see their discipline suffer as a result. And when you’ve got the destructive forces of Franco Mostert and RG Snyman (with the latter simply being able to terrify opposition defenses on the basis of looks alone) waiting on the bench to add further fuel to the fire, we can’t help feeling Japan could well unravel here on Sunday.

In the back row Japan have looked strong but South Africa is one of the best in the business

That Japanese back row of Michael Leitch, South African import Lappies Labuschagne and Kazuki Himeno has been one of the revelations of the tournament, but we struggle to see it competing for a full eighty minutes with an intensely physical South African unit. As regular readers know we consider South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit to be one of the best loose forwards in the world, and he just gets better and better with every outing. Japan will be intensely competitive here make no mistake and with Leitch probably dominating the motivational speeches and selflessly putting his body on the line for the jersey, South Africa will get a challenge here make no mistake but we doubt it will be strong enough to negate the South African threat for a full eighty minutes.

There’s nothing like experience at the highest level and at the pivot points South Africa clearly has the edge

Japan’s halfback pairing has impressed make no mistake this tournament, but we feel it will be hard pressed to match South Africa’s big match temperament in the shape of Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard. Pollard has been good with the boot and a reliable kicker and de Klerk is the devastating live wire he excels at being. The one thing the Japanese pair do have going for them is speed and precision, qualities that they have consistently delivered on this tournament, especially scrum half Yutaka Nagare. Despite some of the cricket score results in the tournament so far by the bigger sides, Japanese fly half Yu Tamara finds himself heading into this match as the competition’s leading points scorer, meaning that if nothing else he will keep South Africa honest with the boot if their physicality becomes overly exuberant in the eyes of referee Wayne Barnes. Nevertheless, South Africa have so much proven talent in these key positions, especially with new sensation Herschel Jantjies on the bench, that ultimately South Africa should find themselves running proceedings with ease. However, as a caveat this Japanese side went up against one of the best half back pairings in the world in the shape of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray and clearly got the better of them – so anything could happen on the day!

Japan can do this but South Africa can also do this!

You have to admit that is some pretty compelling viewing from both sides! That Japanese try against Scotland shows some offloading skills that simply defy belief, and we here at the Lineout would dearly love to see this become the new norm in Test rugby, as it certainly is easy on the eyes. Then again so is pint-sized South African winger Cheslin Kolbe’s running game. Expect Kolbe to be one of THE players of the tournament once it is done and dusted and to receive the same kind of accolades and respect from teams that the late great Jonah Lomu of New Zealand received. What is perhaps even more impressive about Kolbe is his ability to bring down giant second rowers – in short if you want commitment from a player then look no further than this mini version of Jonah Lomu. Along with Justin Tipuric and Alun-Wyn Jones from Wales there is clearly a role for the South African in the next Marvel Action Heroes film.

Much talk of the Brighton ghosts has been made leading up to this match, but in reality the two scenarios couldn’t be more different

There is no doubt that South Africa will have this at the back of their mind. Sure they played a warm up match against Japan in Kumagaya a week before the tournament started, and thrashed the hosts comprehensively. However, that is all it was – a warm up game and the Japan we have seen in this tournament has grown into a very different beast. By the same token though South Africa are almost unrecognizable from the shambolic outfit that ended the 2017 season (one of the worst in their proud history), and unlike the last World Cup there has been a much more consistent approach to and preparation for the global showdown. South Africa have done their homework and look the part, whereas the 2015 World Cup Springbok side did not, and instead looked a disjointed mess for much of the tournament. Japan also did not have the weight of expectation on their shoulders in Brighton that they will have in Tokyo on Sunday. This will be the biggest game of Japan’s rugby history and as good as this side may be, we fear that with little collective experience of these kinds of occasions it may all prove too much for them. They have been marvelous hosts and their team has done their country proud and been a credit to the sport as a whole, but it has had an almost fairy tale like tinge to it. Whether or not the carriage will turn into a pumpkin on Sunday at midnight remains to be seen, but there is no denying they and the rest of the world have thoroughly enjoyed the ride!

Verdict

We don’t for a minute think that this will be the one-sided blowout in favor of South Africa that many are predicting. We do believe, albeit with a genuine sense of regret, that the party has to end some time for Japan, and this will likely be their last waltz at the tournament. However, we think that the spirit that has characterized this exceptional side will come to the fore, and allied to some world class skills, Japan will be a difficult nut for South Africa to crack. But crack it will under the sheer physical force of a Springbok onslaught for eighty minutes. Japan does have the talent to spring one more shock of the century, and as a result another entry in the history books is not completely beyond the realms of possibility. Sadly though a big bruising Springbok juggernaut, blessed with some dancing feet of their own, is the side more likely to be standing upright at the final whistle. A powerful Springbok performance is thus likely to end Japan’s epic World Cup journey by eleven points!

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