A desperate late try from replacement wing Karne Hesketh gave Japan an upset 34-32 win against two-time world champions South Africa in their Pool B opening match at Brighton Community Stadium on Saturday.
Built on intense tackling, passion, commitment and a solid game-plan from head coach Eddie Jones (AUS), the famous Japan victory was only their second-ever in RWC history after a 52-8 triumph against Zimbabwe in Belfast at RWC 1991.
Trailing 12-10 at half time, Japan refused to wilt and stayed in touch with the Springboks all game through five penalties from full-back Ayumu Goromaru, and when his brilliant backline try in the 69th minute levelled the scores for the third time in the second half, Japanese supporters dared to dream.
A penalty from Handre Pollard then edged the Springboks ahead 32-29 before six minutes of sustained pressure on the South African line eventually led to Hesketh’s 84th minute match-winning try on the left wing.
During the week, Jones had promised this “could be a day to remember for Japanese rugby” and so it proved as Japan played the high-tempo game they had promised from the opening whistle, electric in both defence and attack.
The much-discussed ‘chop tackle’ was an effective weapon against the Springboks as Japan were able to prevent their opponents from running in what had been expected to be a flood of tries.
Japan had been first on the scoreboard, with fullback Ayumu Goromarulanding one of his four successful penalties on the day, but on 17 minutes it was the South Africans who scored the first try when Francois Louw crashed over from a rolling maul.
This might have settled the South African nerves, but the fierce tackling and darting attacks of Japan rattled the Springboks into errors.
In the 22nd minute Japan committed 13 men to the rolling maul and pushed over the line but the try was disallowed. Sortly afterwards though, referee Jermoe Garces awarded a try to Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch after yet another forward-led charge.
The Springboks struck back four minutes later when Bismarck Du Plessis scored from yet another rolling maul to make it 12-10 at the break, and when South African second-row Lodewyk de Jager stormed through the Japan line to score under the posts early in the second half, there was a sense the flood gates might open but Japan kept coming.
Full-back Goromaru’s two penalties drew the scores level at 19-19 with 15 minutes left, before a Pat Lambie penalty snuck South Africa ahead again 22-19.
South African captain Jean de Villiers read the riot act to his shell-shocked team and they responded with a forward charge which led to replacement hooker Adriaan Strauss going over to secure a try bonus point.
But again Japan bounced back when Goromaru, having already kicked 17 points, scored a superb try from a textbook backline move to level the scores at 29-29 in the 69th minute.
Pollard’s late penalty put South Africa in front and seemingly for good, but then came a finale out of a Hollywood film. With just 90 seconds to go South Africa replacement prop Coenie Oosthuizen was yellow-carded as a Japan maul was held up over line, and Japan brought on Hesketh.
After a lineout and Japan rolling maul which collapsed over the line, the try was disallowed after a TMO review andas the clock went dead Japan opted for a scrum rather than kicking a penalty which would have only secured a draw.
After passing the ball the width of the pitch and back, the fresh legs of Hesketh saw him go over in the corner with the clock in the red to record a historic win. Few noticed that Goromaru missed the conversion, the whistle blew and grim-faced Springboks headed for the changing room as the Brave Blossoms paraded around the pitch to thank their delirious supporters.
This was the first time these two nations had met in test rugby and the expectation was for nothing other than a South Africa win, but Jones, who was part of the South Africa coaching team during their RWC 2007 victory, had spoken about his desire to “put Japan on the rugby map”.
The giant killers had done it. Japan will welcome the world for the next Rugby World Cup in 2019, and on the basis of this, they are ready for anything.-www.rugbyworldcup.com