Springboks bring Japan's odyssey to a suffocating end

Springboks bring Japan's odyssey to a suffocating end
Eben Etzebeth of South Africa wins possession in the lineout from Michael Leitch of Japan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Japan 3 - 26 South Africa

The Springbok captain Siya Kolisi threw his head to the sky and roared out the national anthem. In the middle of the Japanese line just 20 metres from him was the little scrum-half Yutaka Nagare who was wearing the emotion of this occasion all over his face.

This was so much more than just another World Cup quarter-final, the fourth of the weekend. It was a clash between sporting romance and cold, hard reality and warm and fuzzy hasn't won one of these things yet. The fairytale wasn't just ended, it was ripped up and spat out.

The Springboks had said they would stick to what they do best against the pace and precision and excitement of a Japan team that has won over a nation and the entire rugby world. That they did. They absorbed everything the hosts had and then they suffocated them.

Slowly.

Rassie Erasmus' side now face Wales in the last four next week. For Japan it is the end of a fascinating journey, one that accounted for Ireland and Scotland in Pool A and sucked more and more of their people into their orbit like some sort of benevolent black hole.

Teed up as a fascinating contrast of styles, that's exactly how this encounter panned out with South Africa trusting in their brawn and structure and their lethal ability to strike on the counter and the hosts leaning on their unbridled sense of adventure and ambition.

Japan were inventive from the off with out-half Yu Tamura looking to stretch the game with his hands and his boot but the level of execution from the ten was just ever so slightly off and it was the Springboks who landed the first blow.

Tamura is many things but a strong defender he is not. Japan tried to hide him on the short side of a scrum in their own 22 after just three minutes but all it did was leave him exposed and Makazole Mapimpi brushed off his featherweight challenge to score in the corner.

South Africa's first scrum and maul were both effective and, if there was a concern that their physicality would overwhelm the Japanese, then the next 25 or 30 minutes suggested otherwise with the home team electrifying the stadium.

They were helped by a yellow card for Bok prop Tendai Mtawarira for a dangerous tip tackle on Keita Inagata. It could have been red but off he went for ten minutes and Michael Leitch was lucky not to follow him soon after when catching Willie le Roux in the air.

Some of the movement and execution from Japan, forwards and backs, was thrilling through that first-half but it all too rarely led to clean grass thanks to what was some astonishing South African defensive work in the face of almost relentless pressure.

The stats on the half-hour mark read 77% possession and 80% territory for Jamie Joseph's side who had made just 13 tackles to South Africa's 80. But all they had to show for it at the break was three points from a Tamura penalty.

There were other spine-tingling moments, like when Kenki Fukuoka broke free down the left as well as the scrum after 19 minutes which Japan won against the head. As was the case against Ireland in Shizuoka five minutes before half-time, the stadium almost went into meltdown.

They do love their scrums over here.

The signs as the break approached were less positive for the Asian side. South Africa were looking more and more comfortable in defence and could and probably should have had a couple more tries only for sloppy handling and passing to cost them dearly.

Lukhanyo Am's one-arm offload to Mapimpi, with the try line at their mercy, was an especially egregious example of waste and the centre Damien de Allende was called back after crossing over after 38 minutes for an illegal double move.

That sense of inevitability only intensified through the opening exchanges of the second-half with Japan conceding three scrum penalties in the third quarter and Handre Pollard kicking two of the resultant three shots on goal as punishment.

Another three-pointer followed with 16 minutes later and then came the absolute killer in the form of a try from the ever excellent scrum-half Faf de Klerk who spun off the back of a 15m maul to cap off a brilliant all-round performance. The man is small but his input is enormous.

Japan were game to the last, as were their fans, but the remainder was all about keeping the score down. Mapimpi struck for one last try with ten minutes to go and the Boks were still turning the screw when the clock struck red and the ball was kicked to touch.

Japan have done their bit. They have electrified their own tournament and lit a torch for every other so-called 'Tier 2' side in the world. South Africa have the look of a side that is far from done just yet. Don't be surprised to see them meet the All Blacks again in the final.

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