There was never any shortage of courage, but not even the bravest of blossoms could punch through Springbok brawn yesterday as South Africa reached the Rugby World Cup semi-finals by beating Japan 26-3 and ending their dream run at their home tournament.
In what was a first World Cup quarter-final for Japan, neither an entire nation seemingly now besotted by rugby, nor a raucous 50,000 crowd packed into the Tokyo Stadium could carry the hosts to victory.
It was always going to be an enormous ask for Japan to replicate what has been their greatest moment on a rugby field — beating South Africa 34-32 in a World Cup group stage match in Brighton, England, four years ago.
South Africa had been stunned by that “Miracle in Brighton,” but with victories over Ireland and Scotland this World Cup, Japan no longer held any element of surprise.
Lines were clearly drawn, with Japan and South Africa knowing precisely what they had to do to reach next weekend’s semi-final against Wales — this was always going to be a battle between the Boks’ forwards and the Brave Blossoms’ lightning backs.
The first half was close — mostly due to South Africa’s profligacy with the line at their mercy — and the teams had gone in with only two points separating them after an unconverted fourth-minute try by winger Makazole Mapimpi was countered by a Yu Tamura penalty for Japan.
However, after an exhilarating first 40 minutes in which the hosts dominated territory and possession, Japan ran out of energy, ideas and, finally, hope.
They had not been tackled as fiercely this World Cup as they were yesterday. Nor had they faced such a disciplined, well-organized defense.
And where South Africa had been careless early on — they could have gone in at halftime three or four tries in front — they tightened everything up in the second period to devastating effect.
Man of the match Faf de Klerk added a second try on 66 minutes and Mapimpi added his second four minutes later.
Pollard converted one try and slotted three penalties in the second period, all unanswered.
Japan could never hope to maintain the frenetic pace with which they had harried South Africa early on and departed the tournament beaten, but with a whole new army of fans for their exciting, free-flowing rugby.
South Africa must now regroup for their Yokohama semi-final against Wales.
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