Japan moved ball through midfield via Harumichi Tatekawa, above, and fellow centre Male Sa’u

LONDON, – After Japan’s win over South Africa, coach Eddie Jones said of his team: “Japan can only play one way: we’ve got a little team, so we have to move the ball around.”

Japan played with intensity and Shota Horie, Harumichi Tatekawa, Male Sa’u, and Ayumu Goromaru were willing, dynamic runners. Replacement Amanaki Mafi also made a huge contribution from the bench, running 53 metres as Japan became more direct towards the end of the match.

Japan’s movement of the ball was mostly vertical, though, and by keeping the ball within the 15m tram-lines, they superbly negated South Africa’s counter-attacking threat from wide in broken play, restricting Bryan Habana, still looking for his 60th try in test match rugby, to 16 metres run.

Japan ran with the ball in hand fewer times than South Africa, passed less, and ran fewer metres with the ball. They made fewer clean breaks and beat fewer defenders.

Nonetheless, Japan were able to dictate where the game was played for large passages of play. Their centres, Tatekawa and Sa’u, ran a combined 88 metres with the ball, where their wings, Yamada and Matsushima, only managed 43 metres, the bulk of Matsushima’s coming towards the end of the game.

Japan’s plan was to carry the ball into contact in the centre of the pitch, and avoid giving South Africa the chance to counter from wide in broken play. Japan also kicked very deep, finding space or touch and made no offloads, which shows how they took the ball directly into contact rather than playing loosely. Goromaru was responsible for the majority of Japan’s kicking, while Kosei Ono’s duties at fly-half were largely to feed the ball to the centres.

The South Africa forwards carried well, Lodewyk de Jager managing to run 47 metres, which was more than any Springbok except full-back Zane Kirchner. When South Africa managed to maul, their power and weight advantage told. Japan made only 83 per cent of their tackles, missing 26, which also accounted for the Springboks’ ability to break the gain line, as shown by the tries of de Jager and Adriaan Strauss, who broke first-up tackles to score.

On many occasions, however, Japan’s defence were able to compensate for missed tackles and scramble back to slow the ball, especially on the floor in rucks.

South Africa conceded three turnovers at rucks in the first 10 minutes, one each on both flanks and one in the middle of the pitch, as they sought to run from deep in the game’s early stages. Japan’s counter-rucking and ball-stealing at the breakdown was a constant menace, forcing four turnovers and also winning six penalties, allowing Goromaru to kick his record points haul.

The body position of the Japanese players at the breakdown, especially that of the front row, was excellent, low and balanced, allowing them to contest the ball and stay on their feet.

Japan’s ability at the breakdown, combined with their focus on keeping the game narrow and through the centre of the pitch where possible, meant that South Africa were unable to create much width and play with enough pace to stretch a superbly organised Japanese defence.

Japan turned their major weakness, size, into their biggest asset with technique at the breakdown. They played a fast, intelligent game plan to maximise their strength, disciplined play through the phases at pace, only going wide once the Springbok defence had been condensed between the 15m tramlines. Japan’s final two tries were perfect examples of this and allowed them to record their most significant win in test history.

[RWC 2015]