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SOCIAL BOOKMARKS

Magnetism of hosts leaves South Africa in the shade

Four years on from that famous defeat in Brighton, and South Africa are again playing second-fiddle to Japan.

The Brave Blossoms are the only show in town here right now and, while Rassie Erasmus and his lads have been charm-personified when handling the litany of enquiries about the hosts this week, some noses appear to be out of joint at the lack of attention for the Springboks.

“Japan, Japan, Japan has been the focus of all attention since the RWC hosts completed a mould-breaking qualification process...”

This was the South African union’s own website which noted that hardly a single question had been asked about the Boks across two days of media.

Day three didn’t see much change, although it did start with one South African journalist calling that writer’s bluff by asking forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot what team they would name for Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final and how they would play against the hosts.

“You will have to wait a little longer to hear the team,” he laughed.

“How are we going to play? If you watched us play during this World Cup then you will know how we are going to play, but if you think it is just going to be one-dimensional then... If you have seen our evolution, it has changed, it has progressed. It is going to be an exciting Test match.”

And then it was back to the hosts.

There is a magnetism about this Japan team that is impossible to resist given their style of play and the excitement they are generating.

At least 53 million people, almost 40% of the population, watched them defeat Scotland last weekend and clinch a place in the knockout stages of a World Cup for the first time.

Replica shirt sales soared past the 200,000 mark early in the tournament and shops have been sold out for weeks.

The Canterbury store beside Ireland’s team hotel in Fukuoka last week had only a handful of XL size Japan t-shirts and a few generic Rugby World Cup items left on the shelves.

A nation has fallen for this team and the rest of the world with it.

Proudfoot spent a year here as an assistant coach with the Kobelco Steelers so he can appreciate the groundswell of support and the fact that the Boks are the Ivan Drago to their Rocky Balboa right now but these Boks have played in Wellington and Twickenham and Cardiff before.

This will be different but the same too.

“We relish playing in that amazing stadium with an amazing crowd and a passionate crowd. It will buoy our boys just as much as theirs.

“I get goosebumps just thinking about it so we aren’t sitting here thinking, ‘oh, the rest of the world wants us to get beaten’.”

There is a recognition that Japan will ask different questions of his pack than other teams.

Ireland had their own ‘inside man’ to prep them on what was to come before meeting the hosts in Shizuoka but Greg Feek’s experience of coaching here in recent years didn’t prevent a Japanese win.

Proudfoot believes the emotional side of a forward’s game is just as important as the physical and technical aspects and, while he didn’t stay long in Japan, he saw enough of the players under his watch to be left with an indelible and favourable impression.

“What I learned was the thought-process of the Japanese forwards and how quick they are at snapping detail.

"You give them a clear plan and they snap it very quickly and they work like hell to get that plan under their belts. It has given me good experience.

“Isilele (Nakajima), the reserve prop that worked with me at Kobe, converted from an eight-man to a lock and now from a lock to a prop.

That shows how adaptable they are and how hard they work to accomplish those skills and he has done that in a season. Not many people can do that so I respect that highly.

Proudfoot and winger Cheslin Kolbe both spoke about South Africa’s intention to stick with their more structured style of game in the face of the chaos that Japan can inflict with their fast and loose approach.

And they have the added advantage of knowing that it can work.

Jamie Joseph’s side have played eight times this year and lost just once: to the Springboks.

That 41-7 win in Kumagaya back in early September served the dual purpose of washing the Brighton defeat from 2015 out of their hair and prepping them perfectly for the game to come.

South Africa claimed six tries that day, two of them late on when a man down and on an afternoon when the humidity levels were nothing short of brutal.

And there were more pointers to take from Scotland’s second-half revival against the hosts in Yokohama last Sunday.

Just that the Scots are bloody brave. It was tough coming back from that deficit to almost bring it back.

"They threw off the shackles and played their style and the way they played all year.

“That gives us a lot of confidence to know that the Japanese have a very definitive style and they are very good at it but if you are confident in what you do, then you can apply pressure.

“That’s what we took out of it. You saw Scotland play the way they can play and pressurise the Japanese. We have got experience of that earlier in the year.

"We got a couple of opportunities early in the game to play our game and put them under pressure so it is going to be about applying those lessons from the first game to the second game.”