Greatest shock in sport
Tournament’s 1000-1 outsiders humiliate the Springboks
Shock and awe in the Brighton air. The vacant stares in South African eyes at the final whistle made an arresting image as Japan inflicted on the two-time World Cup champions the greatest upset in the history of Test rugby.
The scores were so close right to the death, when Japan turned down a chance to draw in the final sequence, opting for a scrum instead of trying to kick a penalty goal, and the rugby world threatened to tilt on its axis. It duly did when replacement Karne Hesketh arrowed in at the corner in the fourth minute of overtime.
It was the reward for nerve, togetherness and the joy of self-expression. Japan had been hammering at the line in the very last burst of action, with Coenie Oosthuizen sent to the sin-bin as the Springboks grew ever more desperate to stem the flow.
In the end, they cracked and Japan were exultant. As was most of the watching world. It was a heady, intoxicating afternoon, the most breathless, breathtaking Test match many of us have ever witnessed. Anywhere. Any time. All hail Japan. It was a famous, famous day.
The seaside mood, the bright skies, the city thronging with delight, it was easy to indulge in flights of fancy and even if the sight of 11 Japanese players trundling the mighty beasts of Bokkedom back over their try line after half an hour is not the sort of fantasy normally entertained in this louche part of the world, it drew a roar that echoed across the South Downs.
It was a vivid portent of things to come. It was a gang activity of a wholly legitimate kind, a landmark moment, a clear sign that this World Cup is actually going to live up to its billing as the most competitive as well as the most inclusive. The party is for everyone, not just a select brotherhood. Japan have proved that in quite remarkable fashion.
Japan were bright, resourceful, engaged and fuelled by a belief that the impossible was possible, their brilliant full-back, Ayumu Goromaru, scoring 24 points, including a rousing late try. There were heroes all over the field, from scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka to captain lock Michael Leitch. It was a fabulous effort. Japan have a simple pledge – they want to restore their World Cup credibility ahead of hosting the tournament in 2019. And they did so at every turn, often stripping the Boks in possession before striking with their own brand of slick, purposeful rugby.
They may lack ballast but they certainly do not want for brain. They are super-smart rugby players, intent on outfoxing the opposition. Their very first scrum was a study in kind.
As the Springboks heaved and surged forward on a Japan put-in, the ball was already away. A channel-one heel of the ball – retro rugby.
The tempo was high and it was relentless. Japan were not going to die wondering “what if ”.
And they did not. They feared nothing and attacked from all over and in every which way. One sublime sidestep from Goromaru, leaving hooker Bismarck du Plessis flat-footed, opened up the field.
Goromaru ought to have fed his wing, Akihito Yamada, and paid the price for ignoring the overlap when he was flattened by Zane Kirchner. Goromaru made partial amends moments later when slotting a penalty goal only to fluff a similar effort shortly afterwards.
Yet they never did crumble, never lost that inner rage and deep commitment to each other and their mission. Their defence was a study in precision as well as passion.
One double tackle from lock Luke Thompson and the outstanding Tanaka, dislodged the ball from the grasp of the mountainous Schalk Burger, enabling Japan to clear the ball 65 metres downfield. It was compelling stuff.
The notion of reaching the quarterfinals may have seemed a wild dream to outsiders given that before yesterday Japan had only won one World Cup match, way back in 1991.
But their head coach, Eddie Jones, is nothing if not bullish, a trait he has always put into play from his time with the Wallabies, as well as the Springboks, for whom he was technical assistant in Jake White’s World Cup-winning 2007 management team. Jones, who took Australia to the final against Clive Woodward’s England in 2003, knew only too well what lay ahead of his team.
Jones is nothing if not a canny streetfighter, a proven operator when it comes to getting the best from a side, as the 2003 World Cup final illustrates. He was shrewd, too, in recruiting former England and Saracens lock, Steve Borthwick, to the cause.
It was easy to see the fruits of their labours, Japan using superb technique to shield the ball and exert a drive as they piled over the South Africa line in the 30th minute, Leitch coming up triumphantly with the ball. Japan had been denied a similar score a minute earlier only by the Television Match Official.
The Springboks were the Springboks, a serious outfit, not used to having their tail tweaked. They had to dig deep to get back in the game, reverting to their traditional methods of submission, twice hammering over from short-range line-outs in the first half, Francois Louw and Du Plessis coming up with the scores.
A soft try just after the break from galloping lock, Lood de Jager, when Japan missed their only tackle of their entire game, through prop Masataka Mikami, appeared to let South Africa off the hook.
Adriaan Strauss, the replacement hooker, then blasted over in the 62nd minute only for Goromaru to come back with two more penalties.
The Springboks are on their backsides. This testing encounter will cause huge tremors in South African rugby. They are fully aware that the road ahead is tough.
They have had their worst ever Rugby Championship, losing all three matches, including a first defeat at the hands of Argentina, at home in Durban. They have been written off for poor form, castigated (as ever) for off-field political matters, decried as a Dad’s Army contingent, and now this shattering experience.
Japan, by contrast, never wilted, never lost heart or hope. Goromaru streaked to the line in the 69th minute and then came that dramatic finale. Brave Blossoms indeed.
Top of the world: Harumichi Tatekawa (right) celebrates Japan’s astonishing 34-32 victory
Giants cut down: South Africa react to their last-gasp defeat by Japan