With 880 caps between them – the second most experienced Springbok team in tournament history, including seven survivors of the triumphant class of RWC 2007 – South Africa probably thought they’d seen it all. That is, until they came face-to-face with Japan on 19 September, 2015.
What appeared to be a relatively straightforward win on paper proved the exact opposite as Japan refused to countenance the pre-match odds of 80/1 against them. The bookmakers' evaulation was understandable if not a little harsh on the Brave Blossoms who had been building nicely under Eddie Jones and had reached the top 10 in the World Rugby Rankings only to fall to 15th as RWC 2015 kicked off.
History, however, was massively against them. Without a Rugby World Cup win for 24 years and only one victory to their name in 24 previous outings, against Zimbabwe, Japan's record at this level was incomparable to that of the Springboks. Only four times had South African been beaten at a Rugby World Cup since being welcomed to the party in 1995, and no-one, apart from a small handful of lucky punters, had them inked in for a fifth.
At least Japan did not have any past Rugby World Cup history against the 1995 and 2007 world champions to weigh them down, this being the first time the nations had met at test level. After what happened in Brighton, South African supporters could be forgiven for hoping they’ll never meet again.
Reacting rather nervously to their status as overwhelming favourites, South Africa coughed up ball time and time again in the opening exchanges and trailed to a Ayumu Goromaru penalty until Francois Louw steadied the ship with a 17th-minute try from a driving maul.
If that show of force was supposed to put the so-called minnows in their place, it clearly didn’t work as Japan, having had a try disallowed by the TMO, reclaimed the lead with half an hour gone when tough-tackling flanker Michael Leitch stretched out and scored from a driven lineout.
"They (Japan) were brilliant. They believed from the first try they could go toe-to-toe with us – and they did,” summed up Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira.
Japan continued to hold their own at the set-piece, even gaining occasional supremacy at scrum-time, but were powerless to stop South Africa driving over for a second try from a rolling maul, Bismarck du Plessis dotting down to edge South Africa 12-10 in front – a lead they held until half-time.
“I’m not relaxed at all,” admitted South Africa’s RWC 1995-winning captain Francois Pienaar during his half-time analysis for ITV Sport. “Credit to Japan, hats off, now let’s take it to them in the second half.”
Pienaar's wish never came true. The second period began as the first half did – with a Goromaru penalty sending the Brave Blossoms' supporters into raptures. However, their joy was short-lived, the Springboks recapturing the lead when the young and rangy second-row Lood de Jager powered through a gap in midfield.
With the conversion going over, South Africa were 19-13 up on the scoreboard. Surely now it was only a matter of time before the floodgates opened? Instead, two more Goromaru penalties meant it was level pegging.
“They never allowed South Africa to get away from them on the scoreboard. They hung in and hung in and were eventually rewarded,” commented former Springbok coach Nick Mallett.
Pat Lambie and Goromaru traded further penalties and the scores were locked at 22-22 as the final quarter approached. Suddenly thoughts turned towards past Rugby World Cup shocks with the consensus that a Japan victory would eclipse anything that had gone before – even Western Samoa’s epic win over Wales in 1991, a feat they repeated in 1999 when they were simply known as Samoa.
Adriaan Strauss hadn’t read that particular script and the hooker, showing a neat turn of pace for such a big man, crashed through some uncharacteristically poor tackling to make the South Africans breathe a little easier.
Six minutes is all it took for Japan to respond again though, Goromaru finishing off a wonderful move in the corner and then adding the extras to make it 29-29. “You couldn’t write this,” tweeted award-winning author and renowned rugby fan JK Rowling, as the narrative on the pitch refused to go to type.
Fulfilling the role of party-pooper, Handré Pollard nailed a penalty to make the score 32-29 to South Africa with seven minutes to go. But there was still time for another twist.
Having been held up over the line after countless phases of attacking play, Japan won a penalty at the resulting five-metre scrum. For the second time in the dying throes of the match, captain Leitch bravely turned down a potential levelling kick at goal, opting to pack down again instead. “Wow – biggest call in history of World Cup,” tweeted an excitable former England coach Clive Woodward.
The large Japanese contingent inside the Brighton Community Stadium – and the millions watching back at home – collectively held their breath. They need not have worried though, Japan’s scrum held firm, as it did all afternoon, and their adventure was rewarded as they spun the ball across the field for Karne Hesketh's winning try in the left corner. Cue pandemonium in the packed stands.
'I'm too old for this, at 55, I should be in Barbados watching the cricket. But the history has now changed for Japanese rugby,” said an emotionally drained Eddie Jones at the final whistle.
CLOSING THE GAP
Despite being lambasted for their performance by the media, South Africa put on a creditable showing thereafter to reach the semi-finals while Japan registered two more victories, against Samoa and USA, but cruelly fell just short of making the knockout stages – the first team to do so after winning three matches.
Not only did the events in Brighton elevate Japanese rugby to a new level, it was also a game-changer for the Rugby World Cup as a tournament. Buoyed by the Brave Blossoms’ result, not to mention plenty of hard work of their own amid significant World Rugby support, the majority of tier two nations exceeded their expectations in England and the average winning margin between the established nations and the rest fell to a record low of 22 points.
For rugby romantics, though, you couldn’t put a figure on what it meant to be among the 30,000-strong crowd in Brighton that day. The century-old music hall ditty, ‘Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside’ had never seemed more appropriate, at least for those clad in cherry red and white.
It was fairytale stuff. Even Jones had to rub his eyes in disbelief. “Japan beating South Africa? I had to look at the scoreboard at the end just to see if it was true or not.”