Cape Town - When South Africa last played Japan in a World Cup, the Springboks fielded the oldest player at the event, aged 38, at lock ... and playing in his fourth RWC.
That man, of course, was Victor Matfield, now wearing a punditry hat for SuperSport during the 2019 event, and one of the famous “casualties” of that sunny day in Brighton in 2015 when Japan stunned the Boks 34-32.
But when the Springboks meet the Brave Blossoms again on the premier global tournament stage, in Sunday’s Tokyo quarter-final (12:15 SA time), Japan will have a “Matfield” of their own … and almost in a carbon-copy situation.
Luke Thompson is the oldest customer at this World Cup, aged 38, also a second-rower ... and similarly playing his fourth (and swansong) one.
Born in Christchurch on April 16, 1981, he narrowly saw off in the age “race” - by exactly one month - another Springbok player, Schalk Brits, who entered the world (perhaps even with that trademark grin already?) on May 16 that year.
And just as Japanese fans would have been basking in yeoman rugby servant Matfield’s relative misery after the Community Stadium debacle, so Springbok ones will be fervently hoping Thompson – almost certain to be in the underdogs’ line-up this weekend - is instead on the wrong side of the result this time.
Thompson had been at the heart of the Japanese engine room in Brighton, paired with Hitoshi Ono (now 41 and long retired) in the second row against a Springbok starting alliance of Matfield and Lood de Jager.
This time, he is likely to have Australian-born James Moore as his ally - they were the duo in the pivotal 28-21 pool triumph over Scotland last Sunday - and smart money will be on De Jager and Eben Etzebeth being their Bok foes.
While Thompson is expected to go directly head to head with Etzebeth in the clash of No 4 locks, it is still possible Franco Mostert will eclipse De Jager to the middle-of-lineout role when coach Rassie Erasmus names his team for the quarter-final on Thursday.
Etzebeth/Mostert had been the combo when South Africa whipped Japan 41-7 in a pre-World Cup Test at Saitama a few weeks ago.
So Thompson is now “one from two” against the men in green and gold, although he will never forget that dramatic occasion on England’s south coast four years back, when he was very much to the fore in the jaw-dropping upset.
He was credited then with 13 tackles and 10 carries, and stayed on the park for the full 80 minutes; he has developed an admirable reputation for producing his most inspired shifts against big ‘uns, as he was second most prolific Japan tackler (19) in the heroic 19-12 downing of Ireland at the current tournament which went so far in paving the way for their shock pool supremacy.
Thompson has something else in common with Bok legend Matfield, however.
Just as the SA lineout maestro thought he had played his last World Cup game at his third tournament in 2011 (before returning to grace 2015, and end with a national milestone 127 caps), so Thompson pulled the plug after RWC 2015 - only to be similarly seduced back to the rigours of international rugby in 2017, and onward to the current jamboree.
He will know that Sunday almost certainly signals his own (71st) last Test match if Japan are beaten by the Boks.
Active in Japanese rugby since signing for the Wild Knights in 2004 out of Canterbury (where his path to prominence was frequently blocked by gnarly All Blacks Brad Thorn and Chris Jack), don’t anticipate Thompson having a lethargic outing …
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