The brilliance of sport is best demonstrated by the regularity with which it brings people to tears. Its ineffable ability to shock, awe, anger, disappoint and elate often leaves the even most composed amongst us tear stricken, puffy-eyed and breathless.
Art can do that, I suppose: a beautiful piece of music or a Shakespearean soliloquy, but those are a different kind of tears, they are tears borne in sentiment and poignancy. Tears in sport result from an all-consuming, nonsensical vested interest, awaking in yourself emotions and an emotional depth you neither thought possible nor knew you required.
If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, watch the last 15 minutes of Japan’s 34-32 win over South Africa in 2015. Take in the looks of incredulity and amazement on the Japanese players’ faces and then compare it to those of the South Africans trying to come to terms with what’s just happened; take in the noise from the fans as they realise they are experiencing a moment that will stay with them forever; and then take in the tears, everywhere tears.
It’s a testament to the quality of this Japan side to say, if they did win on Sunday, there would probably be fewer tears. The standard has been raised by the Cherry Blossoms this World Cup and along with this, so too have expectations. In the build-up to the competition, World Rugby made a video called ‘The Miracle of Brighton’ – you should watch it, by the way, it’s all slow-mos and voiceovers and it’s marvellous – but if the same thing were to happen this time around, whilst unexpected, it wouldn’t be considered a miracle. It would be dubbed ‘The Didn’t-See-That-Coming-But-Not-A-Totally-Unconceivable-Event of Tokyo’, perhaps? Or just, ‘The Result of Tokyo’.
The point being made is that Japan pose a different threat than they did four years ago. In 2015 Japan came playing a fluent style with a fixed philosophy and shocked the Springboks by bringing the game to them. This time around the South Africans will be prepared. Japan are not unheard of underdogs, but genuine challengers that fully deserve their place in the quarterfinals, and unfortunately, this could well be the basis of their downfall.
South Africa have a size advantage that they will use to their benefit. If they are clever they won’t allow Japan much possession and sap the energy out of their opposition, making it easier to defend when Japan do look to play.
South Africa will look to their experience, too. Having won the World Cup in 2007 and finished third place in 2015, they know how to get over the line in must-win fixtures. Whilst Japan, energetic and exuberant, will be looking to continue their historic tournament it front of a home crowd. I think South Africa will come out on top, but I’d love to be wrong, in which case Japan would go bananas, the rest of the sporting world would prick its ears up to rugby, and I might, might even shed a tear.
By Will Sewell.