Rassie Erasmus: ‘Japan are the enemy for one week’
South Africa coach impressed with hosts’ improvement through Rugby World Cup
Japan’s Michael Leitch and South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth compete for the ball at a lineout during warm-up match at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium in September. Photograph: Matt Roberts/Getty Images
“For one week only, Japan is the enemy,” Rassie Erasmus tells the room while outside, the rain drums the footpaths and the leaves fall. The Springboks have arrived in Tokyo and so has autumn. There was a murmur of excitement when the South African team navigated their huge frames through the revolving glass doors and greeted family members in the foyer of the Keio Plaza hotel.
They are easing into their new role this week: as the big heavy footprint that will try to crush like a bug Japan’s blossoming romance with rugby. Next Sunday’s quarter-final in Yokohama is a perfect contrast: the most physically imposing rugby team ever put together against the hosts’ blend of wit and tireless invention and, best of all, manic excitement.
Beside Erasmus sat Tendai Mtawarira, their most capped player at this tournament. The quiet-spoken Zimbabwean has long been known for his shorthand name, “The Beast”, a nickname that is a natural draw for Japanese audiences given to spectacular animation. Mtawarira is one of the survivors of Japan’s shocking World Cup win against South Africa in Brighton four years ago.
“I think like coach said that that game is in the past,” he stressed.
“This is an entirely new challenge. I am looking forward to it. The Japanese team is performing really well and it is going to be a big one.”
Erasmus nodded and smiled beneficently at this assessment. The truth is that Japan-South Africa Mark II bears no comparison with what happened in Brighton. This time, Japan are playing in front of a packed home support which has gradually tipped into delirious enthusiasm with their run of victories over Russia, Ireland and Samoa before grabbing the bouquets in that post-typhoon thriller against Scotland.
Now, the host players have locked on to a dangerously livid self-belief in their potential and, as Erasmus outlined, have developed under Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown into a nuanced team easily capable of adapting from game to game. On Sunday evening, Erasmus sat down to watch Japan’s latest thrilling escapade against Scotland and didn’t go to bed thinking the task ahead straightforward.
“The players didn’t watch it with us. But the management watched it together. They most impressive thing is that they are varying their game. One example is against Scotland they kicked the ball eight times. Against Samoa it was 32 times. Against Ireland, they were a ball in hand team again. So they analyse their opponents really well and play to their own strengths. So it is a really tactical challenge.”
Erasmus is saying all of this in a big conference room filled with a Japanese media contingent that is hanging on his every word. He has a pleasant way about him in situations such as these and quickly disarms the visiting media with his deft handling of the translation process. They quiz him with leading questions about how he thinks Japan have improved since 2015 or, more pertinently, since the warm-up game in early September, played in Kumagaya.
South Africa won it by 41-7, a result that thoroughly disguised what Joseph’s team would unleash over the subsequent month. And while Erasmus said plenty of nice things about the Japanese players – referencing their jersey numbers as he couldn’t “pronounce all the names” – he didn’t allow the relevance of that occasion to slide away entirely.
“It wasn’t a big surprise,” he says of facing Japan in the quarter-final.
“After we played them in the warm-up game we thought they would be number one or two in their pool. So we were not surprised – we thought we might be playing them. In all honesty, the reason for that Japanese warm-up game was to erase the Brighton game. So that if we did meet them again hopefully it wouldn’t be mentioned again. So its 1-1 now and that game is in the past now.
“We have managed well in the warm-up game – they could only score one try against us. So it depends how much the defence has improved and how much the attack has improved. I guess only time will tell. But while saying that in the same breath, in the warm-up game there was no pressure. And the way that Japan has accepted and embraced the pressure has been really impressive. And that will be massive on Sunday. So it will be interesting to see how both teams handle that pressure.”
Outpouring of warmth
South Africa have rumbled through confidently since their spectacular opening weekend encounter with New Zealand. Erasmus conceded he had been keeping a beady eye on both Ireland and Japan from afar, “analysing those games while watching and enjoying them”. Like all visiting teams, the South Africans have been taken aback by the huge outpouring of warmth they’ve received in their host cities.
“The way they have accepted all teams in terms of adopting you wherever we stay – putting on SA jerseys and making us feel at home is something special and I’ve never experienced it my life before. The way they handled the typhoon and I know there were a lot of losses in life and in other ways and our condolences from the Springboks. But it shows the strength of the Japanese rugby to be able to host a game, play the game and beat a team like Scotland.”
Which is why there is a painful twist to this rivalry. Four years ago, the disbelieving Springboks were the victims as Japan enjoyed their fairytale rugby moment. Now, it is up to South Africa to try to abruptly end the momentum and noise Japan have generated over the past month. It’s up to them to bring silence and disappointment to a country where they’ve been feted from the get-go.
“But while saying that, we are playing for our country,” Erasmus continued in the slightly apologetic voice of a man determined to deliver that very disappointment.
“And we want to win the World Cup. And so unfortunately Japan are the enemy for one week. We want to beat them.”
No translation required.