ByTakashi Minami / Yomiuri Shimbun SportswriterPAARL, South Africa — The Rugby World Cup in Japan starts on Sept. 20.
Japan’s shocking victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup in England raised the profile of the Brave Blossoms, who are now aiming for their first-ever top-8 finish in the upcoming event.
Jean de Villiers, then Springboks captain, shared his memories of the game with The Yomiuri Shimbun. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: Japan defeated South Africa in the previous World Cup.
A: It’s a big part of history, that game. Not just in the South African context, but I think in the history of rugby, that will go down as one of the most remembered games.
Q: Was there any difference in the image you had of playing against Japan before and during the game?
A: I think we still prepared very well for the game. We always knew that it would be difficult with [head coach] Eddie [Jones]’s influence with the Japanese side. We had guys like Schalk Burger and Fourie du Preez who had played in Japan.
But still, I think subconsciously you go into the game and you know Japan is not one of the big forces in world rugby. So during the game we went behind and we sort of always felt confident that we would still come back and win the game. But almost every time that we got a bit of a buffer, they just came back.
So all the way up until the end, they were not taking the kick and going for the scrum, and I still felt we’ll keep them out, a wrong decision from Michael Leitch, we’ll keep them out, we’ll make the tackle and kill the game, and we’ll win the game. I felt confident that we could do it, but it just seems in that game that every time we did something, it just didn’t work out, or Japan was a little bit faster, or a little bit better.
Q: The final decision was not Eddie’s but Leitch’s [a run, not a kick].
A: I think you need to give credit to Michael Leitch, because as a captain, you are essentially the guy that makes the final decision. You make the decision on the field based on what you feel on the field. Even though the coach might give an option, to go against it takes a lot of courage, but also, you’re the one who takes the responsibility for that decision. So credit must go to him.
I must say ... it was very difficult for me to do the postgame interview. I don’t want to sound disrespectful at all in what I’m saying now, but obviously from a South African point of view, a South African team is never supposed to lose against Japan. But then looking back, it almost explained how far rugby has come globally in that Japan has improved so much, because as I said, postgame we felt embarrassed by the loss.
Those same two teams will probably play against each other 100 times, and we will still win 99 times. But on the day, that day, they were better than us. I think that in a way is the beauty of sports, the beauty of rugby.
Q: What kind of team was it when you were captain?
A: I thought we had a very strong team. I think the squad was actually really strong with a good blend of experience and youth.
Q: Did your team unite to become even stronger after the game because of the loss?
A: Definitely. Especially I suppose with our group, we had a diverse group, but a very experienced group as well. The more successful you become, the egos grow a little bit as well and suddenly, you face something like that, and that really brings the squad much closer together. So in a way, it was really good for the team. But also, two things can happen. Either the team can split apart or you can get closer together. And in our case, luckily, it brought our team closer together.
Q: How do you think the Japanese team will do in the next World Cup?
A: This World Cup for Japan I think will be a very difficult one. The expectation will be huge. Firstly, because of how well they performed in the previous World Cup, obviously, and secondly, being the host nation. For the first time they go into a World Cup where there will be very high expectations for the team to do well.
Q: Japan is in Pool A (Ireland, Scotland, Samoa, Russia).
A: [In the last World Cup, Japan] won three games but didn’t make it through the pool. I think it’s gonna be difficult for them. I don’t think they will be able to win three games this time around, maybe win two. Jamie Joseph’s a good coach. Hopefully, we can see Japan go through in their pool, maybe finish second after Ireland. And South Africa can beat New Zealand in our pool and we can get a South Africa and Japan quarterfinal.
Q: What’s going to be the result if South Africa and Japan meet again?