A thoroughly entertaining first half performance from Japan saw them stick closely to the Springboks on the scoreboard while deploying the sort of fast paced offloading rugby they are known for and which makes them such a joy to watch – and a potential danger to Scotland’s defence.
Coached by Eddie Jones and sprinkled with the odd project player of their own, they now have some forward nous to their game as well as a remarkably less porous defence than we have seen in the past. They have a strong lineout, which gives them a strong attacking platform. When you are kicking for the corner after only 25 minutes it shows real confidence in your abilities.
There was the occasional feeling of “anything you can do…” which suggested South Africa weren’t quite in top gear but only planning to seek it when they needed to. Everything Japan tried South Africa that ended in success, responded in kind, from initially fumbling errors to two impressive rolling lineout drives that led to a try at each end within moments of each other. Both sides could trouble Scotland in this regard.
Japan were very canny and played a sound tactical game, not forcing it but always waiting to pounce on a turnover opportunity and finding plenty of change in the outer channels. The worry was that the effort required to stay so close in the first half would nor or could not be maintained in the second half.
HT RSA 12-10 Japan
Stalwart fullback Goromaru inched Japan back into the lead with a penalty and with referees and TMOs so influential in the tournament already, relying on penalties to bring you back into games could be foolhardy – not to mention the promise of bonus points. So it was that Bok lock Lood de Jager loped over the line after busting through a tackle, to swing the momentum right back to the South Africans.
More confidence was shown by Japan shortly after a period of intense tackling by the Boks and some darting Japanese runs earned them another penalty. They didn’t chase the corner, but Goromaru kicked the goal. Japan were treating this like a test match in which they were equals, not massive underdogs.
The roar when Japan equalised with a further penalty on 53 minutes was huge, with most of the neutrals by now having shifted allegiance to the Brave Blossoms. A penalty apiece followed and the stage was set for a nailbiting last 20, until Adriaan Strauss burst through the line and ran in for a simple try. Those infrequent splinterings in the Japanese defence faced with hefty runner just gave South Africa enough to keep clawing back the lead.
But Japan just would not lie down, and that man Goromaru finished an attacking move Ireland would be proud of with a superb try and converted it himself to draw even at 29-29 with ten minutes to play.
South Africa were rattled enough to kick a penalty when next given the opportunity – this had suddenly become a must win situation for the mighty Springboks and Japan were still breaking the gain line through runners like Matsushima, Leitch and Amanaki Mafi. The Boks went a man down with 2 minutes to go as Japan attacked, and Japan had one final chance for glory through their lineout.
They drove it over, but the ball was in the middle of a pile and the TMO had little chance to see it anywhere near the line. Another penalty and one last scrum with the time over and history on the line turned into a series of scrums before Japan threw it first one way, then the other and Karne Hesketh slid over in the corner to seal the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history.
The joy of the Rugby World Cup is that it does throw up theses games where although you rarely see that Hollywood glory moment come 80 minutes, the thought you might be seeing sporting history for almost an hour of rugby or more can be truly inspiring.
And every so often you get a game that does go right down to the end, that does show you sometimes the underdogs can have their day in the Brighton sun – and give you a true moment of sporting magic.