South Africa began their long stay in Japan with an easy victory over the Rugby World Cup hosts.
Six tries to one, five tries from his wingers, a solid defensive effort and some free-flowing rugby will have had Rassie Erasmus feeling fairly content with where his squad is right now with regards to their form and the opening match against the All Blacks just two weeks away.
Conditions were sticky at the Kumagaya Rugby Stadium as temperatures soared above thirty degrees at pitch level but that experience alone will have been invaluable to the Springbok’s progression.
The first half was a scrappy affair, a lot of which can be put down to the climate more than anything.
The ball was greasy off the floor and the humidity didn’t lend to handling the ball too close to the breakdown.
The Springboks played the conditions better than the home team though.
The kicking game early on was clever and accurate as the visitors found gaps and space in between the Japanese back three and when the Bok’s needed to up their physicality and power, they did so at the flick of a switch.
The first try epitomised how the men in green wanted to play the game and how they will look to play in the tournament itself.
Long raking kicks or clever nudges from Faf de Klerk put the ball into the right areas of the field and allowed the pressure to build.
When they turned that ball over, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am started coming short to suck in defenders and allow Cheslin Kolbe acres of room to step his man and open the scoring.
Willie le Roux’s form and place in the team has been under scrutiny from some sections of the Springbok fan base, but his prowess in the air and as a link man outside of Handre Pollard set up all three of Makazole Mapimpe’s tries. Le Roux also kicked out of hand well and found space in behind which is an area that has needed improvement in the last 12 months. Kolbe especially chased well and made some important chop tackles to stunt any chance of a counterattack.
Another important area for the South African pack to excel in is the restart. Duane Vermeulen took on the responsibility today and returned the ball with simple, yet effective barrelling carries.
Defensively, questions were posed for a couple of nail-biting moments but some gritty determination and nous over the ball extinguished any hope Japan had of threatening double figures on the scoreboard.
The ten minute period after halftime was particularly impressive. Forwards got low on their own goal line and drove the pick and go ball carriers backwards. When the ball went one receiver out then Pollard, De Allende and Am were quick out of the blocks to gain valuable meterage.
As the game wore on, both teams starting to look weary and Japan looked the stronger towards the end of the match but, under serious heat and fatigue, South Africa had the right answers. Down to 14 men, they still managed to nab two tries from a patient intercept try that they forced and yet another Herschel Jantjies snipe around the breakdown.
It wasn’t the perfect display by any means and there are still some areas of concern for Erasmus to address.
Discipline was once again lacking for periods of the game, mainly at the breakdown. It’s fine to attack the breakdown but not every one. Over eagerness and killing the ball resulted in losing Francois Louw’s fresh legs for the final ten minutes of the game, the most crucial minutes when the crunch matches start rolling in at the end of the month.
Trevor Nyakane’s injury didn’t look too bad but there is always a concern when someone limps off the field. The prop has been in imperious form this season and Erasmus won’t want to lose him at this stage.
The troublesome conundrum of Pollard’s back up is also a concern. Francois Steyn stepped in today but his timing and weight of pass to Am was what ultimately cost them the one try that they did concede. A lot of the attacking momentum and fluidity that South Africa had built up during the game was lost when Pollard was replaced.
De Klerk kicked well out of hand but his defensive timing was off today and he never threatened around the fringes. Jantjies came on and that all changed. The Sale man is still favourite to start against the All Blacks but Jantjies is breathing down his neck. As the competition progresses, Erasmus may be forced into making a crucial decision on who carries that shirt into the business end of the tournament.
Erasmus will be happy overall with what he saw in the baking Japanese evening taking into consideration the weather conditions, travel and training that have been endured in the past week.
The next challenge is the biggest of the lot though and there are still some areas that need tweaking. It’s just that though, tweaking. They don’t need fixing. The Springboks look on course to mount a serious challenge at this Rugby World Cup.