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Japan’s victory over South Africa is the ultimate triumph of the underdog – The Guardian (blog)

The Rugby World Cup always comes with a vague promise that something surprising will happen, but nobody ever thought that the great surprise, the shock of all shocks, would be delivered on day one proper of the eighth version of the tournament. Brighton is now enshrined in Japanese rugby folklore – a sentence never knowingly rehearsed as a selling point of the old south-coast resort. South Africa 32 Japan 34. The Cherry Blossoms, as they are rather sweetly called, had previously won only a single game at the World Cup, a 52-8 victory over Zimbabwe in 1991. They drew 12-12 with Canada in 2007, but in 24 games this was their record: won 1, drawn 1, lost 22.

They were not exactly touted to beat South Africa, twice winners of the World Cup. The Cherry Blossoms are the polar opposite of the Springboks, small of stature, neat and precise of movement. The hulking beasts of the southern powerhouse would simply swish aside the gnats. In the wait for the surprise, nobody bar the punter in Coventry who put £100 on Japan at 33-1 had dared suggest it would happen here.

Even those who remembered the upsets that have overturned Wales over the years – twice beaten by Samoa and once by Fiji – thought that the gulf between Japan and South Africa was too vast. This wasn’t a jaded chaotic Wales recklessly taking on Pacific Islanders in a running game; this was Japan being overshadowed by the proudest, cruellest, strongest rugby nation on the planet.

There was the time France managed to lose to that other Pacific nursery of rugby talent, Tonga, and as recently as the last World Cup. But that was an aberration, almost a deliberate – and decidedly sulky – statement by France that they were having a strop and that anyway it didn’t matter if they lost because they would qualify anyway. Which they did, and went all the way to the final.

Even so, losing to Tonga was still a nasty result for the French and does not sit easily in their record book. It would have been used to remind the players that these things can happen and you have to be on perpetual guard against complacency. South Africa in the quarter-final of 2007, when they were on their way to the final, had to be lectured sternly by their captain, John Smit, that unless they grew a pair they were likely to go the same way as Wales against Fiji. South Africa did rally and held Fiji at bay.

Such a challenge could not come from Japan, could it? Fiji do not lack for bulk and power. It has been an observation here that Japan are the best pound for pound rugby players on the planet, crisp of pass, fast of feet and low of body angle in both their scrummaging and tackling. The point was not, however, that these attributes gave them a fighting chance, because for all the grace and elusiveness of the Japanese rugby player, size counts on the playing field. And Japan are tiny alongside South Africa.

South Africa 32 Japan 34. It is the ultimate triumph of the underdog. Of course, South Africa had to have an off day, but they also managed to smash their heavy rollers through enough tackles to suggest that this was business as normal. Except it wasn’t. Every time they were bowled over, Japan picked themselves up and went harder and lower into the tackle next time.

And every time they had possession themselves they unleashed a move of invention and originality. They are coached by Eddie Jones, with whom Sir Clive Woodward once locked horns. That was in the days of England against Australia for world rugby supremacy. Here, it was inventive Eddie, coach of the land of his mother, watching with a mixture of defiance and growing hope as his team picked themselves up and ran back at South Africa with angles and pace that cut the Springboks open. The build-up to the tries by Ayumu Goromaru and Karne Hesketh was a blend of dazzling ingenuity and patience – to be brave with the ball but disinclined to lose it.

Where does it go from here? It leaves Scotland and Samoa in a state of disbelief. The tussle for qualification has a new entrant. Pool has been thrown open. Next for Japan are Scotland.

Next for South Africa, and before they play against Samoa, comes an assault by media social and not so social. South Africa is vicious when it turns on a rugby team that has failed. You could see by the look in the eyes of Heyneke Meyer and his players that they knew exactly what was coming their way. Surprises at the Rugby World Cup are wonderful. Ask Japan. Or terrible if you are the victims.

Japan’s victory over South Africa is the ultimate triumph of the underdog – The Guardian (blog)

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