The one-time minnows – who had lost 24 successive Rugby World Cup finals matches before beating SA in Brighton four years ago – have gone from strength-to-strength, says Springbok lock Lood de Jager.
“Their rugby has improved immensely,” he said. “They are still classified as a Tier Two nation but we don’t see them as a Tier Two nation at all.
“They went unbeaten in their pool and they beat two Tier One nations in the pool stages. So we definitely see them as a Tier One nation and as a big opponent and a game that is going to be challenging on Sunday.”
Japan became the first nation since then-Tier Two Argentina in 2007 to take the scalp of two Tier One teams at the tournament. Japan beat Scotland and Ireland to top their pool and earn the ‘reward’ of a quarter-final against South Africa.
They are the first Tier Two nation to go unbeaten through the pool stages and follow in the footsteps of Argentina and Fiji (2007) in reaching the playoffs.
De Jager said: “They have improved very much and what makes them a good side is that they play to their strengths.”
Those strengths are portrayed as a high-tempo game and supreme fitness allied to clever tactics to mask any shortcomings they may once have had in terms of physicality.
“They will definitely try and pick up the pace of the game in all aspects,” said De Jager.
“For us it’s just a question of being ready for it; ready for quick line outs; to be set early [at the lineout] but I think for us we will stick to what we know.
“We’re not necessarily going to speed it up but if there’s an opportunity for a quick lineout we will be willing to take it. But for us, it’s a question of sticking to what we know and then executing.
“For us it’s a question of what makes us good and what our strengths are. It’s going to be a good game and a great challenge on Sunday.”
The Springboks are also aware they will have a noisy home crowd backing their opponents – as well as what is forecast to be the largest television audience in Japanese broadcasting history, tuning in to see if the home team can continue its fairytale journey.
“We have a lot of respect for Japanese people but once you step on that field it’s every team for itself and going into a quarter-final we are going to go out with everything we’ve got,” said Faf de Klerk.
“That part of ‘respect’ – I don’t want to say goes out of the window – but it’s rugby and it’s going to be physical and the team that is going to be up for the game is going to pull it through.
“So I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to get that thought [enjoying Japan and its people] behind us. We are going to enjoy the crowd and it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere but once you step on the field that all falls away and you just focus on what you need to do as a player.”
The ‘Miracle in Brighton’ has been a recurring theme for the Springboks since arriving in Japan – but exorcising that ghost was key for the team as they look forward to a game that will transfix the global rugby audience.
“It definitely helped to play them five weeks ago,” said De Jager. “We have a pretty good idea of what they will bring, so we will be well prepared.
“I don’t think we were that well prepared in Brighton that day – but they still beat us fair and square, we are not making any excuses. But that warm-up game that we played with them before the World Cup put us in good stead for this quarter-final.”