‘City by the sea’ transforms into Little Tokyo for day of celebration
Brighton had embraced Japan visitors even before they produced rugby’s greatest giant-killing act
Some people are born lucky. Brighton’s first Rugby World Cup fixture produced probably the greatest upset in the competition’s history as Japan, whose only victory on this global stage was way back in 1991, struck with a last-gasp try to defeat the mighty South Africa 34-32.
The decisive scorer’s name was Karne Hesketh. Hardly resonant of Tokyo, but who cares? Brighton residents asked themselves: is it always this good?
No, is the answer. This was an impossible result, on virgin turf for the tournament. It left the Springboks shattered and treated us to one of the great giant-killing acts on only the tournament’s second day.
Right to the final minutes, nobody thought it possible that a team who touched 100-1 in the betting could defeat a side who were 1-500 to win this game. But some sweet spirit was blowing Japan to a better place in history.
The Springboks scored four tries and still lost. “I’m getting too old for this,” said Eddie Jones, Japan’s Australian coach, reflecting on “three years” of effort to win this game. “I’m 55. I should be in Barbados watching cricket.” Jones, who likes to stir a pot, said his dream in retirement was to “sit and criticise, like Clive Woodward. Tell Clive I said that,” he teased.
Japan, though, are playing Scotland in Gloucester on Wednesday and Jones is going nowhere yet. “We’re not done, mate,” he said. “We came here to make the quarter-finals.” The next rugby World Cup will be held in a country that had won one game in the tournament – a 52-8 victory over Zimbabwe 24 years ago. But the sport’s biggest event pitching its tent in Japan (2019) is no big deal now. Instead, it seems a fitting reward. Sussex is strong on club rugby, but the town “that looks like it’s helping police with their inquiries,” according to Keith Waterhouse, has never featured strongly on the world rugby map. The ‘city by the sea’ has its racecourse, with one toe still in the Brighton Rock era, county cricket at Hove and a couple of lower league oval ball clubs. But the 15-man game was really planting a flag in unknown territory with this shock on the turf where Brighton and Hove Albion of football’s Championship ply their trade.
Japan had lost 18 consecutive World Cup fixtures. That record hardly entitled them to take the torch four
Rugby rolled its tanks right on to crazy golf ’s lawn, on a day summer warmth made a comeback
years from now but the entertainment they lavished on this audience had local hearts pounding.
You can make any claim you like on paper, but only when the event arrives can you tell whether the first-time hosts like what they see. Such is the enthusiasm in Britain for global sporting events that it is starting to sound like a redundant question. Wherever you send the matches, the locals will embrace them. There were said to be 300,000 applications for the 29,000 tickets for each of this weekend’s games here: the apparent mismatch of the Springboks v the Brave Blossoms and the tighter Sunday contest of USA v Samoa.
Event-curiosity is partly responsible. The British public is drawn towards a buzz. It puts the kettle on for countries it has probably never been to. But you still have to do the missionary work – and nothing beats a colossal upset.
Brighton had already been transformed into Little Tokyo. South African fans held their end up but were vastly outnumbered by Japanese visitors and locals favouring the underdog. In town, the Old Steine became a Japanese zone, with food by Moshimo restaurant, a groundbreaker in the town’s culinary diversification. In fact, you could say the average Brighton hipster needs no second invitation to eat sushi while striking a zeitgeist pose.
The fan zone on Brighton beach is the most photogenic of this World Cup: right next to the pier, and beneath the Wheel (a mini-London Eye). Rugby rolled its tanks right on to crazy golf ’s lawn, on a day when summer warmth made a comeback. On the promenade, Japanese news crews sent back images of the classic English seaside. In Brighton, the Kiss-me-quick heritage is still visible but is now overlain by a more knowing, trendy culture.
Samoa’s Faifili Levave picked up on that Londonisation (as locals like to grumble). He enthused about Brighton’s “very funky-cool vibe” but knows there are some places a professional rugby player must not go. “I haven’t made my way down the pier,” he said. “I’m told there are some good doughnuts down there. Hence why I don’t want to head down there.” Birmingham is next for Samoa, but Levave admitted: “We don’t really want to leave Brighton.”
Sport is so ubiquitous that visiting teams often fail to catch the eye. But there has been a genuine interest on the South Coast.
A handful of Springboks having fish and chips in an Eastbourne restaurant made the local paper. Whether this translates to schoolchildren abandoning screens and Premier League football in favour of this bruising and complicated sport is another matter. Yet proximity breeds interest; good presentation generates good memories and leaves people wanting more.
A lot of campaigning and love went into the creation of this so-called ‘Premier League-ready’ ground, which opened in July 2011. Championship football and concerts have kept the lights ablaze in its downland nest.
Those in this supposedly louche seaside community who were watching a rugby international live for the first time will never forget the valour and skill of Japan.
The sea air did more than revive them. It turned then into Trojans.
National pride: Japan savour the against-the-odds win that has set the World Cup tournament alight