BRIGHTON, ENGLAND – Japan turned its first matchup with mighty South Africa into the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history on Saturday when the 1,000-1 no-hopers won 34-32.
Nearly four minutes into added time, replacement back Karne Hesketh charged into the edge of the left corner, the crowd’s roar could probably be heard in Tokyo, and Japan’s players collapsed to the ground in a mixture of joy and disbelief.
The noise level inside Brighton’s compact stadium gradually became deafening as Japan’s screaming red-and-white army of fans and South Africa’s green horde sensed a sensational result when fullback Ayumu Goromaru screeched over into the right corner to make it 29-29 with 10 minutes to go.
“It was amazing at the end, I think even Springbok fans were supporting us . . . maybe not,” Japan coach Eddie Jones said. “A pretty humbling experience.”
Replacement flyhalf Handre Pollard kicked a penalty to put South Africa ahead 32-29 with seven minutes left.
But after Japan refused to kick for a draw, persistence and ambition was rewarded as the ball was swept from right to left, and Hesketh squeezed through.
“We stuck at it, and had the courage at the end to go for the try … it’s just fantastic,” Jones said. “I had to look at the score at the end of the game to see if it was true or not.”
The Springboks scored four tries through flanker Francois Louw, hooker Bismarck Du Plessis, lock Lood De Jager, and replacement hooker Adriaan Strauss, but could never put daylight between themselves and the Japanese.
The 1995 and 2007 World Cup winners looked distraught, and some fell to the floor in disbelief as Japan’s players carried flags and stood in a line to wave and bow, as they milked the cheers of the delirious 30,000-strong crowd.
“We’ve been training to beat the Springboks for the last three years,” Japan back-rower Michael Leitch said. “We want to celebrate this win, but we’ve got Scotland around the corner so we have to prepare.”
Despite only ever winning one previous World Cup match in its history, Japan — inspired by Goromaru’s audacity — simply never stopped believing.
When South Africa’s Coenie Oosthuizen was sin-binned with little more than one minute left for failing to roll away from making a try-saving tackle, Japan waived off a chance to kick a tying penalty by setting up an attacking lineout. Japan smashed South Africa back with yet another rolling maul that was held up right on the line.
Referee Jerome Garces called for a video replay, with the crowd standing, anxious and awed. The try was not given, but Japan had another scrum.
South Africa held firm — just — but the drama wound up as another scrum packed down.
It seemed lost, as it looked — momentarily — as if South Africa turned the ball over. But Japan still had possession, and in the blink of an eye the ball was whizzed from right to left as the creaking Springbok line finally cracked.
As Hesketh was mobbed by his teammates in the corner, South Africa sat head in hands, towels on heads, as the crushing disappointment sank in.
“We’re at a loss for words to describe our performance,” South Africa captain Jean de Villiers said.
A Springbok side packed with 888 test caps was expected to make a statement of intent with an early and convincing win against Japan. But Japan’s confidence soared as the majority of the crowd threw their backing behind the most outside of outsiders.
“We have to take responsibility for this performance because it’s way below par for the standards we set. It wasn’t good enough by a long shot,” De Villiers said. “Credit should go to Japan for the way they stuck it out.”
Japan forced the Springboks into frequent mistakes from the get-go. Pride stung, South Africa overlooked a chance to kick for points when awarded a penalty in the 17th minute and earned the try it sought to flanker Louw.
But amazingly, Japan bullied South Africa in the maul, and used it to carry Leitch over for 10-7.
Only a minute later, Du Plessis crossed for South Africa to lead 12-10 at the interval, but they had little to cheer.
Japan regained the lead through a penalty after the restart, but moments later, De Jager broke through a poor tackle to sprint over the line. South Africa was back in front at 19-13. Maybe now they would kick on.
No, mistakes in defense kept cropping up, and Goromaru slotted over two penalties to level the score.
They swapped more penalties, then replacement hooker Strauss bounced off three players and crossed between the posts. But Japan brushed it off, and a brilliantly intricate four-man passing move ended with Goromaru darting into the right corner. The pressure was on to convert from wide right, and he glided his kick brilliantly over to set up a frenetic last 10 minutes.
The unthinkable happened; South Africa cracked, and Japan’s players threw themselves into each other’s arms at the final whistle.
“Our target was to make the quarterfinals and to be the team of the tournament,” Jones said. “Now history has changed for Japanese rugby, now we’ll have kids back home who wanted to be baseball or soccer players who want to be the next Michael Leitch or Gorumaru.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5