Ken Early: Japan turns the Rugby World Cup on its head

Michael Leitch’s courageous decision to go for winning try turns world on its head

Japan players celebrate after beating South Africa in the World Cup Pool B game at Brighton Community Centre on Saturday. Photograph: by Steve Haag/Gallo Images.

Japan players celebrate after beating South Africa in the World Cup Pool B game at Brighton Community Centre on Saturday. Photograph: by Steve Haag/Gallo Images.


Japan 34 South Africa 32

The thing you have to remember about the greatest upset in the history of rugby’s World Cup is that it never really felt that way until the very last second.

Until that final surge, as Japan switched the ball first right and then left, it had always felt as though we were witnessing an increasingly embarrassing, but ultimately inevitable, South African victory. What you see is conditioned by what you expect, and even Japan’s coach Eddie Jones couldn’t quite bring himself to expect anything else.

“It looked at one stage when they got seven ahead that they were gonna run away with the game,” he said later. “And that would have been the normal scenario. You know, it’s like the horror story. The woman goes for a shower at midnight, you know what’s gonna happen next. Sixty minutes, they get seven ahead, and you know what’s gonna happen. Next 20 minutes they score three or four tries, and it ends up the score is 50 to 20. And everyone says: well done Japan, you tried hard, you battled, you were brave.

“Today we were more than brave.”

Kickable penalty

Japan were a lot more than brave, but bravery was the key to their victory. Trailing by three with 80 minutes already elapsed, they won a kickable penalty. Kick this penalty and they will have drawn with the twice World Champions. In the zone of rationality that surrounded the field, a draw with South Africa was still a great result for Japan. In the zone of delirium containing the Japanese players, the thought of settling for a draw never even occurred. Japan’s coaching staff watched in consternation as captain Michael Leitch decided to risk it all on one last shot at glory.

“I didn’t want to disappoint the boys,” he would explain.

“The staff wanted us to go for three,” secondrow Luke Thompson confirmed. “I heard a physio come on and say three, but there’s so much noise out there, so many people saying different things. Deep down we really wanted to go for the try. We were pretty pumped up and pretty keen.”

To Thompson, it was always obvious they would run rather than kick the penalty. In the mixed zone after the game he looked genuinely bewildered when journalists expressed surprise that Japan chose not to kick.

“I hadn’t really thought about it too much,” he said. “I thought we had the scrum under pressure. The fact they changed both of their props shows they were under pressure, they were worried about that. We had the momentum and it was a great decision by Leitchy to go for the win. We’re here to win games, and that’s what happened.”

Everyone had started out assuming that Japan were here, as always, to lose games. The bookies had expected them to lose this game by more than 40 points. Still, in the pre-match warm-up they had looked focused and intense. You admired the conviction with which they were carrying out this empty formality. Did the Christians bother to warm up before they took on the lions? At that point warming up seemed no more than a courtesy gesture to the predators, sparing them the inconvenience of having to tear cold, stiff flesh.

Second Captains

Meanwhile the South Africans ran through their own warm-up routines in the bright autumn sunshine. They swaggered about with the slightly waddling gait imposed on them by their gigantic shoulders and arms, which look too big for even their enormous bodies. It appears that you are unlikely to get into the South African rugby team unless you are the possessor of arms so massive that it is uncomfortable to let them dangle unsupported by your sides. When the Springboks are standing around at ease they all instinctively put their hands on their hips so the arms can buttress the hulking superstructure of the shoulders.

Faintly reminiscent

The Japanese pack came past on their way back to the dressingroom, joined together in a kind of loose-walking scrum, with each player’s hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. Something about this formation made them faintly reminiscent of a group of medieval self-flagellants, on a pilgrimage to what they believe is the end of the world. It seemed certain that this particular group of penitents wouldn’t have long to wait for the mortification of the flesh they craved. What sort of thoughts were going on behind those solemn, silent faces? How does it feel to know that in just a few minutes, you will in all likelihood be trampled into the dirt by hundreds of kilos of Springbok? What could the Japanese tell themselves at such a moment?

It transpired that Jones was telling them that he had seen the ancient footage from Japan’s solitary World Cup victory, when they beat Zimbabwe in Belfast 24 years ago, on the stadium screens. They owed their fans some new footage.

Jones: “I told them that the next time they do that in four years, you want to be able to show a history when Japan has won big games.”

Thompson: “We talked about getting a country to be proud of what we have achieved. To be a serious nation in rugby terms. To get a bit of pride back into Japanese rugby.”

The Boks won the first penalty of the game and Patrick Lambie kicked for the corner rather than for goal. Indeed, South Africa would not deign to kick a penalty at goal until almost an hour into the match.

After the match, South Africa’s coach Heyneke Meyer sat in the press conference, hardly daring to raise his eyes from the table in front of him and muttering about having let the country down. You could not conceive of a more conscientious display of formal shame. A South African journalist suggested that the Boks’ willingness to kick for position rather than points showed a lack of respect to Japan. Would South Africa have behaved this way in a serious Test match?

The question seemed harsh, because kicking for the corners was what South Africa’s fans had demanded. Those fans didn’t just want to beat Japan. They wanted to crush them in a manner befitting their status. They didn’t want to keep the scoreboard ticking over. They wanted tries. The first time Lambie opted to aim a penalty for the posts, 55 minutes in with the score 19-19 and the Boks obviously under serious pressure, the South African fans booed.

Sufficient style

Like everyone else, they still had not seriously considered the possibility that they would lose this game. The only thing they were worried about was that they would fail to win with sufficient style.

At every turn, what we were seeing had been coloured by what we had expected to see. When Japan had taken the lead after seven minutes it had seemed a comical piece of effrontery. We could all say we had been there to see Japan leading South Africa in the World Cup. The South Africans quickly responded with Francois Louw’s try from a rolling maul. When Japan took the lead again thanks to a rolling maul of their own, it seemed provocative. That sort of thing risked making the Boks angry. The South Africans again scored within a couple of minutes through Bismarck du Plessis. A stampede of South African beef rolling over the top of spirited yet doomed Japanese defenders, this was what we had expected to see.

When Japan took the lead just after half-time, you hoped that this time they would defend it a bit better, and were disappointed when the very next minute, a gap opened up in their line big enough for the largest man on the field, the 125 kilogram lock Lodewyk de Jager, to lumber through and score. When Japan fought back to equalise, you had to conclude that South Africa were having a very bad day. But when Adriaan Strauss immediately ran through the middle to score yet another South African try, you assumed it was all over.

That was the horror-movie moment Jones had referred to, the inevitable breaking point in the game, when all the weight of the Springboks’ history and experience, not to mention their strength in depth off the bench, would inevitably bear down on Japan and crush them.

Instead, Japan hit back with a brilliant running try through the inspirational Ayumu Goromaru that exhilarated the crowd, dumbfounded South Africa and changed the destiny of the match. The South Africans flailed, looking to hit that weak Japanese centre but this time they found the path was barred. Handre Pollard scored another penalty, but Japan’s resistance couldn’t be broken by a three-point lead. Back they came at the reeling South African defence.

Jones laughed as he recalled those final moments. “It was amazing wasn’t it, the end of the game? I think even the Springbok supporters were barracking for us at one stage. Maybe not, maybe not. But that’s got to go down as one of the greatest games in World Cup history.”

Japan, he said, have two objectives. One, to reach the quarter-finals. Two, to be the team of the tournament. After just one day, they’re already half way there.

SCORERS - South Africa: Tries: Louw, B. du Plessis, de Jager, Strauss. Cons: Lambie 2, Pollard. Pens: Lambie, Pollard. Japan: Tries: Leitch, Goromaru, Hesketh. Cons: Goromaru 2. Pens: Goromaru 5.

SOUTH AFRICA: Kirchner, Habana, Kriel, de Villiers, Mvovo, Lambie, Pienaar, Mtawarira, B. du Plessis, J. du Plessis, de Jager, Matfield, Louw, du Toit, Burger.

Replacements: Pietersen for Mvovo (71), Pollard for Lambie (58), du Preez for Pienaar (58), Nyakane for Mtawarira (55), Strauss for B. du Plessis (54), Etzebeth for de Jager (69), Kolisi for du Toit (58). Not Used: Oosthuizen. Sin Bin: Oosthuizen (80).

JAPAN: Goromaru, Yamada, Sau, Wing, Matsushima, K. Ono, Tanaka, Mikami, Horie, Hatakeyama, Thompson, H. Ono, Leitch, Broadhurst, Tui. Replacements: Hesketh for Matsushima (80), Tatekawa for K. Ono (75), Hiwasa for Tanaka (68), Inagaki for Mikami (59), Kizu for Hatakeyama (54), Makabe for H. Ono (57), Mafi for Tui (47). Not Used: Yamashita.

Attendance: 29,293.

Referee: Jerome Garces (France).

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