Japan faced an intimidating South Africa team when the pair clashed in Kumagaya on Friday, which was the Springboks’ final warm-up ahead of the World Cup this autumn.
Assuming Rassie Erasmus selects a fairly similar lineup for the first fixture in Pool B against New Zealand – and beyond – we can expect to see the side go far this year. Having endured a woeful period of form after the last edition of the tournament, the South Africans have ironed out numerous faults and now look to be reaching their peak just in time.
Captain Siya Kolisi is an artful poacher with the stamina to keep it going for the whole contest; the flanker is a delightful weapon for Erasmus to have at his disposal. Add the brutal, uncompromising force that is Duane Vermuelen in at eight and you are looking at a fearsome backrow. Blindside Pieter-Steph du Toit completes an excellent unit, bolstering lineout options and doing the hard graft.
Yes, the Springboks do indeed have some frightening talent covering six to eight, but it doesn’t end there. Ahead of them in the scrum are several battering rams, with the colossal Eben Etzebeth a far more experienced head at 27 years-of-age than the raw lock that helped the team to the quarters in 2015. Malcolm Marx may not be the greatest hooker in the world when it comes to throwing, and opposition teams may target that suspected weakness, though he is a devil to play against given his proficiency in both the tight and loose.
You look at the half-back pairing of Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard and instantly realise the backline is full of danger. The duo’s creativity can unlock even the meanest of defences, allowing the centres and wings to punish sides in devastating fashion. Once the bludgeon of the forwards has worn down the opponents, the quicksilver widemen finish the job.
Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Damian de Allende; these are men who are experts at exploiting gaps and finding the weakness in a backline. Being fed by arguably the world’s best nine and a more than capable ten should allow them a split-second longer to identify the chink in a team’s armour. There are no glaring deficiencies to be found here.
There is also plenty of depth to the squad, with the likes of Francois Louw and Tendai Mtawariria amongst the forwards, as well as a great find in Herschel Jantjies offering a different sort of threat as the substitute scrum-half, which has arguably been a problem position for the Springboks in recent years.
However, there is a slight concern at lineout, as we have touched on. Neither Marx, nor understudy Bongi Mbonambi, are considered to be first-rate throwers. The jumpers are well and truly there – with some giants in the engine room – but the accuracy isn’t. Ok, 85% is certainly admirable, yet too often the ball doesn’t come cleanly. A minor delay in setting up a maul can quickly become a major disruption and prevent any go-forward. Erasmus will be far from happy with wasting such a potent means of attack.
Nevertheless, there are enough virtues in this squad to suggest they have a reasonable shout of glory. South Africa are far from the one-trick pony they used to be, adding guile and vision to their trademark bulldozing. The aggregate score from their last four meetings with the All Blacks is 107-106 in favour of the Kiwis, but it wouldn’t be an enormous shock to see the Springboks nudge ahead following their showdown on Saturday 21 September.
By Ed Alexander