Tuesday 22 October 2019

Springboks in the spotlight before titanic opener against All Blacks

South African scrum-half Faf de Klerk. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
South African scrum-half Faf de Klerk. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Yokohama may not know it yet, but it's about to become the centre of the rugby universe this weekend, with the World Cup's box-office pool fixture taking place in the city on Saturday.

That it's also hosting Ireland's opener against Scotland less than a day later is a happy coincidence. Joe Schmidt and his assistants are considering going to the stadium to check out their potential quarter-final opponents, New Zealand and South Africa, in the flesh.

It's the first time these two giants of the game have faced off in the pool stages. Ireland arrived in Japan as the world's No 1 team, but most experts are tipping one of these two teams to return to collect the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2.

The Springboks are preparing for their meeting with their biggest rivals in a hotel beside Tokyo's Disneyland and, having played a part in the tournament's fairytale story four years ago when they lost to this year's hosts in Brighton, they're determined to avoid any nasty surprises.

That they are spoken of in the same breath as the All Blacks is remarkable considering they lost 57-0 to the world champions two years ago.

That result sealed then-coach Allister Coetzee's fate and the call went out for Rassie Erasmus to come home after one year of his Munster reboot. He didn't resist and he brought his prized assistant, Jacques Nienaber, with him. Fitness coach Aled Walters and defence consultant Felix Jones have followed suit.

Since he took over, Erasmus has overseen a radical transformation of the team's results. However, off-field issues threaten to cloud the picture.

Jones' arrival came about because attack coach Swys de Bruin departed on the eve of the tournament, while second-row Eben Etzebeth was forced to deny any involvement in an alleged racially-motivated attack before the team departed for Japan.

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Then was news of star winger Aphiwe Dyantyi's failed drugs test.

"Any distractions we will just try to put behind us. We don't try to focus too much on it as a team," flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit said.

They certainly look prepared. Last week a photograph taken by Walters surfaced on social media after former Ireland star Stephen Ferris posted it. It generated a huge reaction.

"It was just good lighting," star scrum-half Faf de Klerk said with a laugh when asked about the snap. "The guys are in great shape."

Erasmus has embraced the 'transformation' rules around the inclusion of black players and has been rewarded with a new generation of native African players, with captain Siya Kolisi an inspirational figure.

And they possess the most global of squads with a collection of players and coaches who have experience of the northern hemisphere game.

"I think it does give us a little bit of an advantage, especially for the boys playing in the UK or Europe," Sale Sharks' star De Klerk said.

Given his knowledge of Ireland's inner workings, Jones' presence in the ranks has already unsettled Schmidt ahead of a potential quarter-final.

Assistant coach Mzwandile Stick, who used his media appearance to put pressure on referee Jérôme Garcès ahead of Saturday's opener, says the competition is pretty open.

"Even though they (New Zealand) are No 2 in the rankings, they are one of the best teams in the world but if you look at the top five teams currently in the world rankings, you will feel that all those five teams have got a better chance to win the World Cup on a better day because of the results between the northern hemisphere sides," he said.

"When England played Wales at home they won and then it was a different result when they played in Wales. It's been a proper build-up to this World Cup.

"Hopefully, the officials will treat every team equally and respect the game and also the fans."

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