No one can escape the feeling that a banal encounter between hosts Japan and rugby nobodies Russia doesn’t really feel like the true World Cup opener. The spiritual kick-off, many of us choose to believe, will come almost 24 hours later.
It’s a battle between the only two champions since 2003 and arguably the favourites this year. Springbok resurgence versus newly revealed New Zealand mortality. Victory here will set a tone that will echo through the whole tournament and immediately begin to mould the quarterfinals.
South Africa’s refusal to be cowed in the face of the undisputed best team of the last decade has set them up nicely to be those victors. Their strong preparation has also brought back flashbacks of the last time this side entered the World Cup with a robust head of confidence.
“The camaraderie and the gees amongst the guys in the team is awesome which alludes to what we had in 2007,” former Bok hooker Gary Botha says. “I’m excited and I think we have a great mix of players.
“I think our preparation has been spot on. Rassie [Erasmus] has been thinking outside of the box for the past year.”
Drawing comparisons to that fierce 2007 outfit is about as high a compliment as the current crop could hope for.
That team had a winning ethic ingrained in their being. Built on a core of Blue Bulls players that had won the Super 14 earlier that year, South Africa was formidable from the get-go. What Jake White built was a coherent team that had played plenty of rugby together by the time September rolled around.
For Botha, who was one of those Bulls players, it’s easy to see the parallels.
“In 2007, every match was a final and that’s how we approached it,” he said. “Luckily the mix of players we had really complemented each other. That’s what I see now. And the coaching staff really do their prep to the millimetre. Then it’s only up to the players to go and perform and go live their dreams.
“Preparation is key, avoiding injuries are key and then getting your team ethos on track is a massive thing. Teams either go two ways — split through the middle or brought closer together. Confidence is contagious and so is a lack of it. At this moment the players have confidence in each other because they’ve grown tremendously in the last year — under Rassie’s guidance but also the players’ guidance. Having confidence is one thing, we now have to execute it.”
There’s little denying that Erasmus has brought a level of consistency that has long been missing from the Springboks. His match-day squad announced this week is the first time a 23 has been repeated in 51 Tests. Apart from captain Siya Kolisi, who returned from injury against Japan, this will be the fourth game that this side has played together.
It’s much in keeping with the coach’s promises that this season would be used mainly to refine rather than reform. With few exceptions, this team could have been largely predicted towards the end of last year.
Tactically, there’s been little to separate the two rivals. The All Blacks and Springboks have faced each other three times in the past year with a triumph for each side in 2018 and a hard-fought draw in this year’s Rugby Championship. Even more remarkable is that there is an 82-82 aggregate scoreline over the three games.
The astute defensive system which Erasmus has employed has effectively stymied the All Blacks. Coach Steve Hansen this week lauded Erasmus for the defensive change in tactics but also hinted that the South African tendency to gamble could be punished.
“South Africa will give us opportunities because they roll the dice,” he said. “Are we good enough to take them? Will the weather conditions allow us to be able to take them? They’re all things that we’ll have to wait and see.”
“Rolling the dice” is jargon for the Bok tactic of drafting in the wings off the flanks to apply pressure to the opposition backline. Think of last year’s win in Wellington when Aphiwe Dyantyi rushed Damian McKenzie and forced a game-winning knock-on.
At present, some nasty weather is predicted for Yokohama on Saturday which should bode well for Erasmus. The more unpredictability is injected into the game the better for a gung-ho approach from those in green and gold. A snapper such as Cheslin Kolbe also immediately comes to mind as someone who will benefit from the volatility.
“Defensive structures are out of this world, guys are getting cleverer every day trying to stop attack,” Botha says.
“If you look it’s become all about timing, you get maybe two chances and that’s the difference being up 20 points and winning by three. I think that’s where we as a nation have made tremendous strides.”
Erasmus has taken the time to drive this defensive structure to the pinnacle of world rugby, but he has also managed to restore the knack in attack by bringing out the best in Faf de Klerk.
The number nine will be a crucial determinant in the line out and scrum on Saturday, and according to Lion’s coach Swys de Bruin, De Klerk gives the team an “X-factor”.
“He’s always been a special player, and not just on attack. Time and again, we see Faf popping up to make a tackle on a prop that no one else can. He’ll hit a perfect kick that drops inside the opposition 22 and puts us in a great position. He’s got so much and that comes through in all aspects of his game,” he added.
When New Zealand were eliminated from that 2007 World Cup, they made such a fuss about France’s winning try being a forward pass that referee Wayne Barnes would later soberingly talk about the mental toll of Kiwi abuse. A common theory is that leniency from the officials has followed the men in black ever since. Erasmus spoke out about it this week; Hansen slammed him for what he saw as unfair remarks.
The mind games have been unmistakable but also potentially redundant. The Springboks have already put in the hard work in that regard over the last year. Their ability to hold fast not just once but twice in Wellington has removed the fear factor that accompanied this fixture when the pools were initially drawn. Fearlessness was one of the defining factors of the 2007 campaign. It’s creeping back in now.