TOKYO, 18 Oct - Japan are through to the quarter-finals after a sensational fourth victory, against Scotland, in the pool stages. We may have become used to Japan's heroics in this World Cup but it is worth remembering that before RWC 2015 they had only beaten Zimbabwe. Not only are Japan winning, they are helping redefine how rugby should be played.
Japan rely on pre-contact footwork. If I am a 100kg forward and a 75kg back runs directly at me, I can be confident of winning that collision. If the back changes direction just before contact, or accelerates suddenly, my weight is a disadvantage. I need to be light on my feet to get in position to tackle the carrier. Suddenly, the 75kg back has an advantage.
Kotaro Matsushima (pictured above) is running straight at the forward combination of Grant Gilchrist and Magnus Bradbury. That is a contact he would be expected to lose. His sudden acceleration before contact allows him to bounce off both defenders and leads to a clean break. It is breathtaking footwork, enough to turn a lost contact into a gainline success.
It is not just backs who benefit from fast footwork. Japan have offloaded themselves into a strong attacking position, but Kazuki Himeno is in danger of getting caught behind the gainline by Gilchrist. Himeno's footwork leaves the Scotland second-row on the ground, and Japan have a lineout 30 metres up the pitch. When you are attacking, you can hammer down the door or you can use the key. Japan found a key for each of their pool opponents; can they unearth the one that dismantled South Africa four years ago?
Back and forth
The rugby playbook, which Japan have torn up, says you should try to play in one direction. Playing consistently in the same direction forces the defenders to move around the breakdown. If you recycle the ball quickly, you should find the defenders cannot move around in time and you have an overlap.
If you just go back and forth, the defence do not move and logic says they will not leave gaps because they are not moving. Japan do not follow that logic. When they move the ball with as much speed as they have done, they can go left and right and still avoid a set defence. Scotland cannot put big hits on the Japanese attackers if they are constantly being forced backwards.
In the clip below, Japan almost never attack the same way twice. They know if they give Scotland a static target to hit, the Scots will win. Japan make the most of their power by keeping the ball moving and running at space.
Rugby is a game of evasion and Japan are embracing that. They may not have huge ball carriers like England or South Africa, but they have speed and agility in their attack. For a team like South Africa, who are used to defending against power, Japan's way of playing will come as a shock.