By Nick Said
KOBE (Reuters) – South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus has ticked the boxes on a successful Pool B campaign at the Rugby World Cup which, despite an opening defeat to New Zealand, may provide them with a gentler route to the final in Yokohama on Nov. 2.
The Springboks must wait to discover their quarter-final opponents, but an expected second place in the pool could see them avoid the gritty Irish and take on Japan, where they will expect their enormous physicality to subdue the hosts, just as it did in a 41-7 warm-up win last month.
“I know the Irish so well and they are so professional. They will be a big threat, and I will be nervous if we play them,” Erasmus admitted to reporters in Kobe.
“Japan is a much bigger threat than people think and they beat Ireland the other day. I’m not quite sure who would be the easier bet. Scotland can also still sneak in there.”
The Pool A equation will only be decided on Sunday, but for now the Bok players are enjoying two days off after 16 weeks together and a World Cup campaign that is building momentum.
Their forward domination has been a feature of the tournament so far and will continue to be their key weapon.
Italy coach Conor O’Shea believes they are potentially the most powerful side ever to take to a rugby field after watching his team get bullied in a 49-3 loss in Fukuroi City.
Once a platform has been laid up front, the Boks are able to unleash their skilful and pacy backs, and in wings Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi have two lethal finishers.
Erasmus has so far been able to rotate his squad, with each of the 31 players having made at least one start, ensuring rest for those that need it and game-time for those feeling on the fringes.
“We are in a good position in terms of personnel, but from now on it counts for nothing. You lose one game and you are out,” Erasmus said.
A record of 27 tries scored and three conceded in their four pool games speaks to the structure and organisation of the Boks, and that is what opposing teams will find difficult to break down.
An area to ponder for Erasmus is the back-up fly-half role to Handre Pollard, with Elton Jantjies blowing typically hot and cold, though 2007 World Cup winner Frans Steyn and Damian Willemse are options there as well.
Willie le Roux has also had a underwhelming tournament as the first-choice full-back and could face pressure in his position from Willemse and Warrick Gelant.
(Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)