The Springboks kick off their Rugby World Cup campaign in Brighton this weekend.
South Africa come in to this match as clear favourites even having lost three of their last four matches, including a defeat at home to Argentina for the first time in their history. Heyneke Meyer has opted for a team full of experience for this Rugby World Cup opener, boasting a team with 880 international caps between them. Japan, under the tutelage of former Australia head coach Eddie Jones have climbed to number 13 in the world and now have players with real pedigree, three of which play in Super rugby.
South Africa will be very grateful that their opening game is against Japan. It has enabled some of their key players to gain an extra week’s rest whilst at the same time reward the players that beat Argentina last time out. Don’t be fooled by some of the names on this team sheet though, as they are genuine contenders for starting jerseys when the bigger games come around.
Veterans such as Zane Kirchner and JP Pietersen are no longer guaranteed starters and given their chance they know they will need a stellar performance to start turning the coaches’ heads. Lwazi Mvovo is another player in that bracket. Fast and powerful, Mvovo could be a star name at this World Cup if he can produce the type of finishing he showed against Argentina.
The return of Jean de Villiers as captain will be a huge relief for the Springboks and his partnership with new kid on the block, Jesse Kriel, will be an interesting subplot to this game.
The back row is where South Africa have an embarrassment of riches and this is where the Springboks will look to dominate to enable the quick ball the backs crave to rack up the points. Duane Vermeulen sits this one out with Schalk Burger deputising but that will not weaken their back row unit. Francois Louw and Willem Alberts will have far too much guile and power at the breakdown for the Japanese to have any chance of disrupting the ball.
One to watch: Jesse Kriel
Kriel burst on to the international rugby scene in this year’s Rugby Championship with a stunning debut try against Australia. He then backed it up with an incredibly devastating line against the All Blacks that tore the defence to ribbons as he jogged between the posts. His lines of running in attack is what he bases his game on but he has demonstrated that his distribution out of hand is just as powerful a weapon. Kriel will be an important cog in the Springbok’s attacking wheel this World Cup and although he only has four caps to his name, he could be one of the stars of the show.
Japan are the proverbial journeymen when it comes to World Cups. They haven’t missed one to date and they are hosting the spectacle itself in four years’ time (stadium build allowing) so they will want to make an impact at this World Cup.
Eddie Jones has helped the national team to a rank of thirteen in the world and now has three Super Rugby players in his ranks. Fumiaki Tanaka, the Highlanders scrum-half, wins his 50th cap on Saturday and is a real character both on and off the pitch. He has 45 appearances for the Highlanders and every bit of that experience will be needed this weekend to help relieve the imminent pressure coming their way.
In the front row, former Melbourne Rebels Hooker Shota Horie has a big job on his hands to try and stem bullish approach of Bismarck du Plessis. The back row is somewhere that Japan can pull some confidence from though. Skipper Michael Leitch was a stalwart of the Chiefs last season, and backed by the New Zealand-born Michael Broadhurst, they have a very robust-looking unit.
One to watch: Michael Broadhurst
Broadhurst is a name that would send shivers down Welsh spines. In 2013, he scored in both test matches against Wales including the second test when Japan took the spoils for their first and only ever victory over Wales. Schooled in the heartland of New Zealand, Broadhurst is a versatile player that can play across the back row and also in the engine room. His ability in the lineout will be key to Japan if they envisage gaining any success in this match.
There is no way of seeing any other result than a South Africa victory by a landslide. There is just too much experience and quality throughout this team and they should put Japan to the sword with the greatest of ease.
That said Japan can be an exciting team to watch at times. With a very quick back three, they have a reputation for scoring length of the field tries so don’t be surprised if we see one of those when the game inevitably opens up.
It is also worth noting that Bryan Habana is five tries short of Jonah Lomu’s World Cup scoring record and will see this as the perfect opportunity to start threatening that.