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Japan tames Springboks at RWC

International Sports

Karne Hesketh of Japan scores winning try against SA Karne Hesketh of Japan scores winning try against SA Out of a clear blue English sky came a thunderbolt to eclipse anything the Rugby World Cup has ever seen. This was the biggest shock in rugby history, bar none, the kind of result that creates ripples beyond mere sport.


If there is a contest even half as extraordinary between now and the end of October, this tournament will have been truly blessed.


The Brave Blossoms were more than gallant; from start to finish they were utterly sensational. Brighton, hitherto a football town, rocked like never before as the Japanese took a vastly experienced South Africa team to the edge of reason and beyond. Until the closing seconds it seemed they might fall agonisingly short, only for their New Zealand-born replacement wing Karne Hesketh to dive over in the corner in the final move of the game to clinch a supposedly impossible triumph. Crazy does not begin to cover it.

There are not enough words to praise the effort of the Japanese players, not least their outstanding full-back Ayumu Goromaru who scored 24 points, or their head coach Eddie Jones. The pack, wonderfully led by skipper Michael Leitch, were inspired from start to finish, the midfield tigerish, the whole occasion almost surreal. If any coach, Tier 1 or otherwise, ever needs to prove to a team they can confound all odds, he or she now has the proof.

The implications for Pool B could be immense, although the tournament schedule now requires Japan to face Scotland at Kingsholm on Wednesday. Can they conceivably replenish their batteries in four days? As for South Africa, world champions in 2007 with Jones acting as a technical advisor, the unthinkable now looms. Lose to Samoa on Saturday and they could be all but out of the tournament before it has even begun.

Whatever happens next, this was a day to confound those who argue rugby’s elite nations will forever dominate the alleged minnows of Tier 2. It was a special occasion even before a ball was kicked. How often in life do you encounter Japanese families and South African ex-pats strolling happily together beside the English Channel, united by a sport not played professionally in the area?

It was a stunning day on the south coast, too, a sparkling blue sea doing its best to rival anything Durban might offer. As they munched their fish and chips on the shingle and lapped up the sunshine however, no one envisaged such unprecedented pier pressure being heaped on South Africa. Japan, ranked 13th in the world, had previously won just one World Cup match in their history, against Zimbabwe way back in 1991. This was the first time they had ever faced South Africa; Tier 2 nations are not meant to inhabit the same league. That cosy old assumption has now been detonated.

Japan were sharper in thought and deed throughout, varied things smartly in the lineout and were an absolute credit to the coaching brains of Jones and his forward lieutenants Steve Borthwick and Marc Del Maso. South Africa fielded their most experienced lineup in history, sprinkled with World Cup winners and had never previously lost the opening game in this tournament. It was not remotely apparent as cherry and white shirts poured forward, passes were flicked confidently behind backs and huge South African forwards were constantly hammered backwards in the tackle.

Even after Francois Louw had restored a degree of order by finishing off a driving maul, Japan simply lifted it up another gear, treating South Africa’s supporters to the unthinkable sight of a Bok pack being mauled back over their own line to yield a try for the tireless Leitch.

While the Boks did bite back almost immediately through Bismarck du Plessis, their half-time lead of 12-10 did not last long. The calm, authoritative Goromaru chipped over another nerveless penalty, only for a missed tackle by loosehead Masataka Mikami to send the 6ft 9in Lood de Jager rampaging over from 30 metres out. Move like De Jager: there’s a number one hit in there somewhere.

More impressive still, though, was the pace and technical accuracy of the Japanese, both forwards and backs a blur of industry. Back they came again, smashing it up and causing increasing panic in opposition ranks. Pat Lambie, to the crowd’s loud dismay, landed a long-range penalty but the Boks were by now desperately killing the ball at the breakdown and Goromaru dragged the scores level again at 22-22 with 20 minutes left.

Another missed one-on-one tackle by a front-rower, however, allowed Adriaan Strauss to waltz straight upfield for a very similar score to De Jager’s. It mattered not; Japan conjured the move of the game, a sweet inside ball to the onrushing wing Akihito Yamada creating space for the unstoppable Goromaru, playing his 53rd Test for his country, to score a try for the ages in the right corner.

Cue pandemonium. Remarkably, though, it was only the prelude to an even more mind-blowing final act, Leitch turning down a potential equalising kick at goal to press for glory. One surge went to the TMO but there was no conclusive evidence, leaving the 30-year-old Hesketh, born in Napier, to apply the final dagger to Springbok morale. It will surely be enough to prompt the Japanese authorities to get their act together and ensure they remain as hosts of the 2019 World Cup, rather than ceding it to South Africa because of worries about infrastructure and costs. Their insanely brave on-field representatives deserve no less.


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