No shock for the Boks: SA beats Japan, reach World Cup semis
TOKYO (AP) — There was no great shock this time, regardless of how much Japan threw at the Springboks.
South Africa advanced to the semifinals with a grinding 26-3 win over Japan on Sunday, bringing an end to the home team's exciting run at the first Rugby World Cup staged in Asia.
The week-long hype over a potential repeat of Japan's upset over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, the so-called Miracle of Brighton, was muscled out of reality by a big Springboks lineup that stuck to its attritional game plan.
With a halftime score of 5-3 it was still anybody's game. The "epic moments" of Japan's famous win four years ago were replayed on the stadium screen during the break but it seemed only to remind the South Africans of what was at stake in the second half.
Handre Pollard landed three penalty goals from the 44th to the 64th minutes to extend the margin to 14-3 before the South Africans finally opened up.
Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk scooted over in the 66th after a powerful driving maul from the Springboks had Japan on the back foot, and Makazole Mapimpi added his second try of the match by finishing off a long-range movement in the 70th to put the result beyond doubt.
Captain Michael Leitch and his Japanese squad won millions of converts to the sport for their high-intensity brand of running rugby, beating Russia in the tournament opener, upsetting Ireland and confirming top spot in the group with victories over Samoa and Scotland.
But they weren't able to cross South Africa's line in what was their first ever trip to the knockout stages of the tournament.
The two-time champion Springboks are old pros at this end of the tournament, improving to 5-2 in Rugby World Cup semifinals and setting up a meeting against Wales next Sunday for a place in the final. England plays New Zealand in the other semifinal.
"I'm really proud of what we've achieved at the World Cup, we'll accept that, we'll enjoy that a little later on," Japan coach Jamie Joseph said. "But I'm really disappointed for the players because they give so much to the group and they give so much to the country at this World Cup, I'm just a little disappointed."
The South Africans had to defend for most of the first half, were a man down for 14 minutes and only had 30% of the field position, but held their composure despite a mounting tally of handling errors.
The Springboks eventually made 140 tackles against 91 for Japan, stole four lineout throws and got the possession and territory stats back to about even.
"The score did not really reflect how tough it was," South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus said. The Springboks "were very determined, but the Japanese team is well coached and they're tough and they're fit and they fight and they've got great support. At the end of the day we must be satisfied with the win."
Mapimpi gave South Africa a 5-0 lead in the 4th, easily beating an attempted tackle from Yu Tamuru on the short side after a big shove from the Springbok scrum and outpacing the cover defense to the left corner.
But Japan absorbed the early pressure from a much bigger Springboks pack and started to take control when veteran South Africa prop Tendi Mtawarira was yellow-carded in the 10th minute for a tip-tackle.
He immediately put his hands up to acknowledge the mistake, but left his team with 14 men for the next 10 minutes and Japan attacked relentlessly — even taking a scrum against the head.
That led to Japan's points, from a calmly taken penalty goal by Tamura in the 20th minute.
Japan had done most of the running in the first half and went close after a Kenki Fukuoka surge on the left wing, but wasn't able to turn almost 70% of possession and territory into a try. South Africa crossed the line twice but was called back, and had to regroup at halftime.
That hurt after the break. Eventually the battering took a toll on the Japan side and possession and territory stats ended about even.
The Japan team did a lap of Tokyo Stadium, where die-hard fans stayed long after fulltime to celebrate their team as it thanked them in a way that would normally be reserved for the victors.
Clusters of South Africa supporters in their green jerseys also stayed in solidarity to salute the Japan team long after the Springboks had left the field.