BRIGHTON — September 20, 2015: Japan‘s Karne Hesketh produced a killer try in the dying seconds that inflicted the biggest World Cup upset ever on South Africa and set off alarm bells in the stunned rugby power.
Japan‘s coach Eddie Jones did not believe the 34-32 result here. He had to look twice at the scoreboard while his players launched into wild celebrations. There was no doubting the praise showered on them.
Springbok counterpart Heyneke Meyer could not comprehend events either. “We let down our country,” he said. “We represent a proud nation and I apologise to the nation.”
The feat overshadowed a huge 50-7 victory for Ireland over Canada and France’s 32-10 win over Italy in Pool B and Georgia’s achievement in beating Tonga 17-10 in Pool C.
Japan‘s “Brave Blossoms”, who had only won one previous game at the World Cup and are nervously preparing to host the 2019 tournament, tackled like tigers and just never gave up against the two-time champions.
South Africa may have been bigger, but they made mistakes and despite their four tries never looked like the world‘s third ranked team.
Three points behind in the dying minutes, Japan won a penalty and captain Michael Leitch went for a try instead of the kick that could have secured a draw.
The Springbok defence kept out an onslaught but Hesketh finally got a touchdown in the right corner.
The desperate final attack came after full back Ayumu Goromaru brilliantly kept Japan in the opening Pool D game with a try and 19 points from the boot.
Japan‘s players took a national flag on a lap of honour to roars of approval from the 29,000 crowd. South African captain Jean de Villiers and his teammates sank to the ground in disbelief.
“It was a pretty humbling experience today,” said Jones, who is due to leave his post as coach after the World Cup.
“Japan beating South Africa … I had to look at the scoreboard to see if I was reading it right.
“We were more than brave today, we kept sticking in there and not letting go,” said Jones who also praised the courage of skipper Leitch in going for the decisive try.
Jones said the victory was right up there with his achievements as coach to the Australian side that reached the 2003 World Cup final and an advisor to the South African team that won in 2007.
South Africa were rattled when Goromaru scored his first penalty in the eighth minute.
But they got the first try through Francois Louw. The powerful Bismarck du Plessis scored the Springboks second to give them a 12-10 half time lead. Lock Loudewyjk de Jager got the third at the end of an unstoppable 25-metre run.
Leitch scored Japan‘s first try and Goromaru kept getting penalties to keep Japan in the game.
The match swung back again to the Springboks when replacement hooker Adriaan Strauss broke through the Japanese centre to score their bonus point fourth try.
But still Japan did not give up. A scintillating back move saw Goromaru go in for a try and then convert to level again at 29-29.
A Handre Pollard penalty gave the ‘Boks a three point lead with seven minutes remaining. The rest is history and the subject of soul searching in South Africa.
“This is a very big wake up call,” said Meyer.
“Samoa, Scotland and US are not easy teams. Its going to be tough,” the coach admitted. South Africa need to top their pool to get an easier path through the quarter finals away from one of the favourites.
Skipper de Villiers insisted the whole team had to take must shoulder the blame.
“We were beaten by the better team on the day and we need to takes responsibility for this performance. It is way below the standards we set,” he said.
Japan earned tributes from around the world. “A brilliant performance by Japan, simple as that,” said England’s World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson.
“Awesome result for Japan,” said New Zealand great Jonah Lomu. “You couldn’t write this,” said Harry Potter author JK Rowling on Twitter.
In Japan, as bleary-eyed fans awoke with hangovers, the significance of the seismic triumph was already being felt.
The recent decision by the cost-cutting Japanese government to scrap plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic stadium had left rugby officials scrambling to find a new venue for the final and raised concerns over the country’s ability to stage the event.South Africa had even hinted they would be prepared to step in as replacement hosts, an offer almost certainly killed off by Hesketh’s try.
Japanese fans wept with joy after their team’s refusal to take three points and a draw with a kickable penalty as time expired in order to go for the winning try, a decision former England coach Clive Woodward described as the biggest in the history of the World Cup.Jones, whose Australia side were beaten by Woodward’s England in the 2003 World Cup final, predicted Japanese schoolchildren who might normally dream of playing baseball or football, could turn to rugby after seeing their heroes stun mighty South Africa.
“There are kids at home who will want to play rugby at the next World Cup now,” said Jones.
Around 200 guests sipping champagne at the South African embassy in Tokyo were left stunned as Japan exorcised their demons in spectacular fashion.
“Ultimate Bok Humiliation”, “Boks Humiliated” — were some of the headlines in South Africa’s main newspapers.
The Sunday Times stated that the defeat by the team ranked 13 in the world “rocked the game to its very foundations” — South Africa are ranked number three and have twice won the World Cup.
Under the headline “Bok heads to roll”, the paper said the future of coach Heyneke Meyer may be in doubt following the shock defeat.
It also said the explosive match exposed flaws in Meyer’s “old man” game plan.
Meyer’s team included world cup veterans like Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana and was the most experienced SOuth African outfit ever to take the to field with a combined total of 851 caps across the 15 starters.
In his column, former Springbok Ashwin Willemse wrote that the impact of the defeat “may be so devastating that we might not even make it past the quarter-finals or be lucky to even reach that stage”.
The Springboks went to the World Cup under the usual cloud of a race row over the selection of the team. Critics, including top government officials have repeatedly accused the sport’s administrators of maintaining elitism by mostly selecting white players.The Sunday Times said “the pressure on the South African Rugby Union to transform the Springboks team will grow from many quarters”
Even labour unions waded in, with the powerful confederation of trade unions, Cosatu lambasting Meyer.
“The ‘old’ injured white men were just useless and gave Japan the space to play a great game,” said a statement by the Western Cape branch of Cosatu.
“In the first half, Heyneke had all white players except the back three, and they were completely outplayed by Japan.” — AFP