By Ciarán Duffy
Ciarán did a great job with his 80-word review of Japan’s famous victory on Saturday but we can’t blame him for feeling compelled to scribble a few more…
We all thought it could be Fiji didn’t we. The 4th team in the ‘Pool of Death’ would surely cause a massive upset. Could Tonga perhaps challenge Argentina for the runners-up spot, or possibly Georgia? Samoa could manage to get passed a higher ranked Scotland side to cause the surprise. There’s always an upset somewhere, but who honestly saw that one coming?
I had agreed to write the 8-0 reviews for this pool, but I had no idea this is what we were in store for. I thought for sure I would be thinking of new ways to say South Africa ran away with the game, but I did not expect a team to just blatantly ignore the script for this World Cup. Cheek of them. I may well get a fine of sorts for this but we need to talk about this game.
Japan now have a 100% record over South Africa. I should clarify that by saying this was the first meeting between the sides but that does not diminish the achievement of Japan on Saturday evening. Japan beat South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Let’s put this into some context, South Africa had never lost to a tier 2 nation, and Japan had never beaten one of the current SANZAR teams (Argentina do not become a full member until 2016). In 2013, they beat Wales, albeit a somewhat second string side, in 2014 they beat Italy. Those two wins and a 1999 win against Argentina were their only wins against tier 1 sides up until now. This surpasses Samoa and Fiji beating Wales, and Tonga beating France, this South African team were very much one of the pretournament favourites and expected to simply run away with the group.
What made this special was the way Japan went about it. For a team who had to defend the way they did, the fact that they controlled the pace of the game is incredible. The speed at which they swarmed around whichever Springbok happened to have the ball was not what was expected from the team who finished 4th in the Pacific Nations Cup against the two time World Cup winners. It was an intelligent well-organised performance that didn’t simply rely on waiting for the opposition to make mistakes, but rather forced them.
At the start, South Africa were on the front foot, but the Japanese were fast defensively, and tackled low to take the big men down. The speed at which they got to the ball troubled South Africa and forced a few turnovers. Ayumu Goromaru opened the scoring in the 8th minute and Japan looked like they might just have a good day. Things took a turn when tight head prop Kensuke Hatakeyama was taken off injured early and Goromaru missed a penalty. It seemed like the dawning of a momentum change, things were going against the weaker team. The tackles were still coming in from Japan but mistakes were forced and Francois Louw touched down off a lineout maul. Just like that the Springboks were in front having not played particularly well. They took advantage of a few mistakes and did the simple things well, a trademark of all the best teams.
That seemed to be that, surely South Africa would push on and win from here. How many times have we seen the plucky underdog start well but tire and the giant clinically take their chances. I lost track of how many times throughout the game I was prepared to type about how South Africa survived an early scare to see off a Japan side who were up for the game but lacked quality. A typical top tier team beating a weaker side without having to step it up too much. We’ve seen that game countless times in World Cups and international tests.
This was not that game. Japan had made over twice as many tackles as South Africa in the first 25 minutes, but they were not tiring, they were growing. Each time they were faced with a setback, they responded. After being held up on the line, they went to the corner again off a penalty. Another maul and this time the backs join in. 8 man, 10 man, 13 man maul, the noise from the crowd was unbelievable. Suddenly this was no neutral venue, this was a Japanese fortress. Captain Michael Leitch touched down in a moment that showed this was more than a bright start. This was statement. Not many gave Japan a hope in this game, not many believed they’d be in with a shout. But this maul screamed out how much Japan believed they really could win this one.
South Africa clearly saw this because they started to turn it up. They went to the corner from a kickable position, which was a sign of their need to close out the game. The maul was too strong and Bismarck du Plessis got South Africas second. This looked like the time where the Springboks would pull away but a key turnover just before half time when it looked for all the world like they would get a third try swapped the momentum again. South Africa led by 2, but Japan were looking much the better side.
We should talk about some of the character in the Japanese line up. As you may remember, in 2011 Japan suffered an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. The family of Hitoshi Ono had their farm badly damaged. Kensuke Hatakeyama was one of those who lost their homes. Getting through this and continuing to play for their national side is befitting of the name ‘the Brave Blossoms’. Japan also boast the smallest player to play Super Rugby Fumiaki Tanaka. It’s not easy to get to such a high level in a sport designed for big men at 5 foot 5, and he has undoubtedly faced his share of naysayers, but the fact that he has shows a lot of resilience. That is what this Japanese performance was made of, resilience.
Goromaru kicked them ahead early in the second half but Lood de Jager touched down immediately after to put South Africa back in front. This seemed like it was for sure the end and that the Springboks would kick on from here. Japan were patient, and drew level twice more through penalties. With under a half an hour to go it was 22-22, and Adriaan Strauss stormed through the defence to touch down. That really should have been the killer blow. Japan were straight away back on top, somehow still not at all worn out. It was looking more and more like Japan were on the same level as South Africa. Goromaru got a try, and kicked a very difficult conversion to draw the sides level once again.
In the 73rd minute Pollard kicked a penalty, after the Japanese defence had done incredibly well to halt the Springbok attack and prevent a 5th try. That did not at all provide any kind of confidence for South Africa. They simply could not handle Japan. This game had remained a contest for about an hour longer than most thought it would and it was not about to end. Japan piled on the pressure and were almost in, but were held up just short. A lineout in the 79th minute, there was a sense that this was going to happen, Japan were going to beat South Africa. Again Japan were held up. The clock went red and Japan had a penalty. They could take the three points, draw the game and get what would already be an outstanding result. But nothing about their performance so far had suggested they were going to accept anything other than a win. The scrum was reset twice, and eventually the ball came out. From one side of the pitch to another, Karne Hesketh finished off another quick but well-disciplined move. Japan had climbed rugby Mt. Everest.
This result isn’t just important because it was unexpected. The tears on the faces of the Japanese supporters show what sport can do for people. The joy of the neutrals in attendance told a story of how absorbing rugby is. Japans performance was what the passion of the fans would look like if it was on the pitch. They stood up to the giants and never looked like they doubted themselves. At the end of the day, rugby is a team sport, if a team believes in themselves that much, they are going to be very difficult to beat.
Every World Cup, the pool stages offer up squash matches. And the question is how can anyone outside the top group of teams beat anyone inside the top group of teams. This is how. Put in place a game plan that works for the team, and then simply refuse to give up and keep coming back until it pays off. It’s also helpful to have a quality goal-kicker and Goromaru was great for the tee. It wasn’t all running around, they built their attacks in a patient way and were disciplined in defence. Japan beat South Africa by imposing their game on the Springboks, refusing to believe the rankings.
As for South Africa, they played like a team who had not played a game for over a month. They weren’t up for the pace of the game and the Samoa match now has added significance. They got two points from a loss and are still likely to come through, but they are no longer clean favourites. Japan have a quick turnaround, facing Scotland on Wednesday. You’d have to assume that fatigue would set in, but the heart of this team can beat louder than any muscle aches.
And what does this mean for the tournament? Well for one thing, it flips the potential quarterfinal line-up. South Africa were pencilled in to play the Runner-up of Pool A, but that may no longer be the case. Whenever a shock like this happens it sends ripples through the tournament, and it might be too early to fill out the wall chart just yet. This result also opens up Pool B; Japan will believe they can beat anyone, and all teams involved will believe they can qualify. Perhaps this result will also put doubt into the minds of the bigger teams, causing them to step up their performances, and not simply go through the motions. It may also inspire the weaker sides to put in a similar performance. We could be in for some very competitive games from here on.
Regardless of the impact it has on the tournament, it should be remembered that we just witnessed one of the most incredible things we will ever witness in rugby. The biggest upset in rugby history is not something to be taken lightly. When you find yourself and other neutrals bouncing off the walls as much during a game that doesn’t involve your own team, wanting so much for a team you have no connection with to win, that is a special game. There’s always excitement when the World Cup rolls around, and this game not only justified that, but encapsulated it.
Ciarán Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously. He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field.
Want to see your own rugby opinions on the web?
Click "Write for us" in the sidebar to find out how.