By Neil Leverett
- Defending champions New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland and Japan all vie for semi-final spot at the Rugby World Cup this weekend in Japan
- Brave Blossoms look to repeat history four years on from Japan’s remarkable win against the Springboks in Brighton
- Ireland face might of holders All Blacks, with Joe Schmidt potentially taking charge of Conor Murray’s men for the final time
TOKYO, JAPAN – As the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals continue a-pace in Tokyo this weekend, can the hosts repeat the improbable once more in the nation’s capital?
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Eyes on Chofu
After a seemingly exhaustive Pool stage in the opening weeks of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, this weekend the business phase of the competition arrives, with the quarter-finals taking place over two days in Tokyo and Yokohama on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
Whilst England and Wales play their final eight contests at the International Stadium 300 miles south of the Japanese capital, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and the hosts themselves will clash at the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu located in the heart of the city, seeking a semi-final berth next weekend.
In two eagerly anticipated finals for very different reasons, the eyes of the sporting world will home in on the Land of the Rising Sun this weekend, with the hope of the many millions of home fans watching, dreaming of an historic evening on Sunday.
First up on Saturday, as the dessert for a potentially titanic tussle between England and Australia, Ireland face holders the All Blacks, with Head Coach Joe Schmidt possibility taking charge of the Irish for the last time after a six-year association with the IRFU.
Perhaps a fitting send-off for the North Island native, the New Zealander however will not want his reign with Ireland to come an end just yet, indeed his side have more than enough ammunition to trouble Steve Hansen‘s men, not least the knowledge of a recent double victory against them.
Only three years ago, Schmidt steered his charges to a famous 40-29 win at Soldier Field in Chicago – Ireland’s very first win against the All Blacks – before again notching a second victory in the 2018 Autumn Internationals in Dublin, as a Jacob Stockdale try led Ireland to a raucous win at the Aviva Stadium last year.
Indeed, Schmidt is hoping to use that result as an initial building block here, restoring both Rob Kearney and Peter O’Mahony to the Ireland XV – members of their win last Autumn – for Saturday. In the only other change, Garry Ringrose will partner Rob Henshaw in the centre for the first time in 16 months, so will Schmidt’s ploy play off?
Pressure heaped on All Blacks
As the All Blacks inch closer to an historic third successive William Webb Ellis Trophy, the pressure will this weekend be ratcheted up to ten for New Zealand, against opponents of which were the only team to prevent the Kiwis scoring a try during competitive Test match in their storied history.
Hansen will be keen to wrestle away one of the only remaining mental strangleholds on his All Black team, and will look to do so with Brodie Retallick named at lock, despite his lack of game time in Japan this tournament.
Jack Goodhue and Anton Leinert-Brown to solve their midfield conundrum, whilst Beauden Barrett will again operate at full-back with Richie Mo’unga at fly-half. Cody Taylor is preferred to Dane Coles at hooker. Goodhue and scrum-half Aaron Smith are the only starting backs who played in their defeat to Ireland.
New Zealand wouldn’t have held the World Cup for the past eight years without delivering when it matters, but with Hansen knowing his opposite number has masterminded two of the last three meeting between the two sides, Saturday is about more than just bragging rights between respective coaches.
History beckons for Blossoms
As Saturday moves aside, Sunday for many sees the main event – in Japan at least – as the Brave Blossoms look to book their place in the last four against an opponent whom four years ago on English soil claimed the biggest scalp in Rugby World Cup history.
After stunning Pool favourites Ireland 19-12 and over-running Scotland in last weekend’s vital clash in Yokohama this time around, Japan erased the memories of 2015 far from their minds, when winning three group games but failing to qualify for the knockout stages – the first nation in the tournament’s history to do so.
Capping a trio of wins with a nail-bitingly intense 34-32 victory against the Springboks at the Brighton Community Stadium four years ago, the stunning victory led by then coach Eddie Jones set up the previous World Cup in picturesque fashion, a feat which on Sunday the hosts will look to repeat.
Kiwi-born Karne Hesketh‘s last-minute try on that occasion sent a nation into ecstasy – which has built into fervent expectation this year – so who can grab their mark in history this weekend and see the Brave Blossoms home once more, and can the flying Kotaro Matsushima lead Japan home?
Springboks look to Kolbe
As defeated semi-finalists in 2015, Coach Rassie Erasmus will have the world seemingly on his shoulders this weekend, with the wave of support for Japan growing, and the Springboks’ steward knowing he must ride the storm in Tokyo.
Opting to leave Malcolm Marx on the substitutes bench, Erasmus names the same XV that beat Italy 49-3 in their penultimate Pool match, perhaps opting to unleash the South Africa speed offensive instead, on a Japanese back line that looked shaky at times against Scotland last Sunday.
With both Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi on the wings, the Springboks are ready to unleash their most potent weapons, which may be the only remedy for a bubbling cauldron in the national stadium.
Perhaps however, the presence of Mbogeni Mbonambi could be the ace in the South African hole, who as Erasmus told BBC Sport simply was a “more physical, brutal, scrummaging, in-your-face hooker”. South Africa are banking on that physical approach paying off against a mobile and versatile Japan XV, who on Sunday will have the hopes of millions with them and the weight of expectation piled on the Rainbow nation.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals take place this weekend at the Chofu Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, as Ireland face holders New Zealand on Saturday morning at 11.15 am, whilst Japan play South Africa at the same time on Sunday, both UK time.
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