CAPE TOWN – Japan has really proven to be the great unknown …
Before the countdown to the World Cup hit 30 or so days to go, the biggest “new” or “different” thing fans probably expected their favourite teams to experience in Japan during the World Cup was in all likelihood the cuisine and the culture.
Sure, here and there were talks about Japan’s weather conditions this time of the year and how it could factor in and how a typhoon or two could maybe pay a visit, but it wasn’t nearly as big a talking point as it’s been over the last few weeks.
Now, with teams having settled in and two more sleeps to go before the World Cup opener, the words “heat” and “humidity” could easily be added to the rugby dictionary, that’s how prominent it’s been in the last few weeks.
And understandably so.
Images from the Springbok camp showing visibly parched players catching a breath while lying stretched out on tackle bags have been all over.
The Boks’ final warm-up against the hosts also showed the intensity of the weather conditions.
But if anybody needed an idea of just how muggy it really is, or just how much teams are expecting the slippery feel of the ball to impact games, they’d only have to look at some of the preparation techniques some teams have used.
Rassie Erasmus and his Boks were the first team to arrive in the Land of the Rising Sun to acclimatise, while Erasmus also purposefully chose to be based in the hot seaside city of Kagoshima last week so his squad could train in and get used to the extreme conditions.
Erasmus also admitted that they deliberately played without the ball against Japan to prepare for the blockbuster of a match against the Kiwis. And then there’s that weight loss … The weight some players were reported to have lost should also serve as an indication, although those three to five kilos that evaporated into Japan’s hot air would have had a lot to do with the guys’ hydration levels as well.
For Steve Hansen’s All Blacks, “plain old water” on their rugby balls seems to be working all right as they have tried to handle the slippery Gilbert effectively.
Wales coach Warren Gatland, though, took things a bit further, or oilier.
Earlier this week, the New Zealand-born coach gave a bit of insight into the techniques they have made use of.
“We’ve been using wet balls and been using baby oil on them as well,” Gatland said. “We’ve taped them up as well and we’ve already been through that process in the camps we had before we’ve been away.
“We have been to two camps where one was at altitude and it was very hot in Switzerland, and then it was in the late 30s in Turkey.
“We’ve done as much as we possibly can in terms of dealing with the heat. I think the humidity is going to be a factor it’s how we cope with that.”
So, from baby oil on rugby balls to shaking off the kilos during intensely hot training sessions, Japan has provided some interesting bits so far … and the World Cup hasn’t even kicked off yet.
Will any of these tactics be enough to lift the Webb Ellis Cup? Maybe not. But Japan has already proven that the winner will have to play, adapt, think and prepare smartly, with or without baby oil.