Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – The stereotypical view will be that South Africa can expect far greater physical challenges later at RWC 2015 than they will encounter first up against Japan at Brighton in 10 days’ time.
Japanese rugby players are not traditionally considered in the same league as many of the superpower nations for collective brute strength and, particularly, tall timber in the pack.
First-choice Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen, for example, has already been quoted as saying this week, as he optimistically weighs up his own prospects of making a comeback from a neck injury at the Community Stadium: “The good thing is it is Japan first up and not a team like Samoa.”
By extension, he was suggesting the Boks, who may be infusing several previously crocked players in Brighton, should benefit from being less challenged in contact during their Pool B opener than they will be further up the line at the tournament.
Hopefully, though, the key, rugged loose forward will not have entirely skipped his homework on his likely opposite number for Japan: a certain Amanaki Lelei Mafi.
Vermeulen will find that Mafi, at 112kg, is only three or four kilograms inferior to him on the scale and also prides himself on “directness” in approach pretty often.
When you Google the player, among the first links you find is one titled “Amanaki Lelei Mafi sends Elliot Dixon flying – YouTube”, a video reference to the 25-year-old Japanese customer “bouncing” the Highlanders Super Rugby star as the NZ Maori representative – no shrinking violet himself – attempts a tackle on him last year.
Mafi is a product of the NTT Shining Arcs franchise in Japan, so someone like Willie Britz, the now globe-trotting Cheetahs and former Lions loose forward, could provide further information on his club-mate if Vermeulen cared to inquire.
The Japanese eighthman, like the man they reverently nickname “Thor” in South Africa, has only recently recovered himself from a fairly serious injury (to his hip), but at the weekend bulldozed his way over the try-line for the winning score as Japan pipped fellow-RWC participants Georgia 13-10 at Gloucester.
Further reports from the match reveal that the Georgians, who pride themselves in a scrummaging ethic almost as much as Argentina do, certainly didn’t have things their own way in the engine room.
“No one ever talks about Japan’s physical threat but their Pool B opponents would be wise not to take forward dominance for granted,” said the Guardian (www.guardian.com).
Also for the Boks to consider as they weigh up a first ever meeting with the world 13th-ranked Japanese is the Eddie Jones factor.
Their national coach was technical advisor to the Springboks during their triumphant RWC 2007 campaign, and he will still have some pretty good insight into the Bok culture and methods.
The squad picked by current Bok coach Heyneke Meyer still boasts plenty of survivors from those glory days, partly masterminded by Jones: Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.
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