BIG CALL: Japan captain Michael Leitch scored against South Africa before opting go for a try rather than a draw
BRIGHTON, 19 Sept – Japan coach Eddie Jones (AUS) has said all long that for his team to win at the Rugby World Cup, they would have to take risks.
That willingness was none more evident than in the dying minutes of Japan’s 34-32 win over South Africa on Saturday, arguably the biggest upset in RWC history.
With the Brave Blossoms down 32-29 but up a man after Coenie Oosthuizen was yellow-carded with 90 seconds to go, the Springboks conceded a penalty metres away from the try line. But rather than opt to kick for goal and play for a draw, captain Michael Leitch chose to go for it, laying down the bet of his career.
And it paid off huge dividends, as substitute Karne Hesketh eventually went over for the winning try in the 84th minute, ending Japan’s 24-year winless drought at Rugby World Cups as the crowd at Brighton Community Stadium erupted.
“I could tell they were panicking,” Leitch said. “We wanted to scrum rather than take the kick because they were down a man and I personally wanted to go for a win rather than a draw. I didn’t want to let the boys down.”
Veteran lock Luke Thompson, who has finally tasted victory in his third RWC appearance, said the Japan XV fully backed their skipper’s decision.
“We’re here to win a game of rugby,” Thompson said. “I thought we had their scrum under pressure. They changed both their props. And it was a great decision to go for the win.
“I heard the physio come on and say 'three' but there was so much noise and deep down we wanted to go for the win. We’ve had draws before.”
Hesketh, who scored with his first and only touch of the game added: “The whole crowd was behind Japan. When South Africa gave a penalty and we decided to go for it, that’s when we finally got their respect.
“You can’t imagine something like that because it’s so special. It was amazing.”
Jones hailed his troops - especially his captain - for the effort behind Japan’s second-ever win at a Rugby World Cup.
“Today we stuck at it, we kept on picking penalties and a try here and there,” Jones said. “And the courage for Leitch to go for the try when we could have taken three and gotten a draw, which would have been a good result, but to have the win is a fantastic result.”
Nevertheless, Jones said Japan were far from finished. They face Scotland on Wednesday in Gloucester on just three days' rest, but with the prospect of reaching the quarter-finals now a reality, the Brave Blossoms are certain to dig deep despite the short turnaround.
“We’re not done yet. We’ve come to make the quarter-finals. If we make the quarterfinals I’m going to retire from coaching. Then I can just sit back, criticise everybody – I want to be like Clive Woodward and be on television. Tell Clive I want to make the quarter-finals and be like him.”
“At age 55, I should be in Barbados watching cricket. It was amazing at the end, I think even the Springboks supporters were backing us. The crowd, the noise was unbelievable. That has to go down as one of the greatest games in World Cup history.”