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Japan out-think and out-run South Africa in Rugby World Cup’s greatest shock

Coach Jones and his players write their name into the history books with stunning victory over two-time winners South Africa, writes Geoffrey Riddle.
Japan in action against South Africa. Reuters
Japan in action against South Africa. Reuters

South Africa 32-34 Japan

Brighton, England // Japanese players may have been three inches shorter on average than their South African rivals on the pitch, but Asia’s best side can walk tall for the rest of their lives after they downed the twice world champions in a historic and uplifting 34-32 victory last night.

In the lead-up to the match, Japan coach Eddie Jones said his side would rely on chopping tackles to stop their larger opponents, and in felling the Springboks they not only secured their first win in the tournament for 24 years but caused the biggest upset in the history of the World Cup.

Scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka was named man of the match, but in reality each and every one of the 22 players who took to the pitch in the cherry and white deserve elevation to hero status.

If the reaction of the travelling Japanese fans was anything to go by – some were in tears – then there will be plenty of celebrating in Japan.

The World Cup has few upsets to boast of, but this put firmly in the shade Fiji’s win over Wales in the 2007 tournament, and Samoa’s defeat of the same country in 1999.

Japan are ranked 13th in the world standings, 10 places below South Africa, and this stunning result matches anything in the wider landscape of sport.

“It is a pretty humbling experience,” Jones said. “Japan beating South Africa. I had to look at the scoreboard to see if it was true or not.

“I’ve coached for 20 years and never worked as hard to get a team prepared.”

When South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer named the most experienced Test side in World Cup history this week, many saw it as a positive move.

Cool, calm heads win World Cups was the thinking, and while that may be the case come October 31, the Springboks look unlikely, on this evidence, to make the final. In the context of their narrow defeat against a hugely committed Japan side, Meyer was completely outthought by his opposite number.

Japan tried to run the legs off South Africa’s ageing side. They continuously changed the point of attack, and in captain Michael Leitch and back-row partner Michael Broadhurst they had two men who attacked the breakdown with a zeal that took South Africa by surprise.

Time and again South Africa were penalised by French referee Jerome Garces and, much like Georgia’s surprise success over Tonga earlier in the day, Japan tackled as if their lives depended on it.

It all contributed to South Africa being continuously disrupted, and without any momentum they could never shake off their opponents.

South Africa carried over seven players from their 2007 World Cup success in their match-day 22, and there was the suspicion that they had become stale. Argentina showed in the summer during the Rugby Championship, when they beat South Africa for the first time, that the Springboks were creaking.

Following such a staggering effort, there is the suspicion Japan might have played their ace. Scotland are waiting in Gloucester on Wednesday, but Jones said after the match his team are not just a one-trick pony.

“Our target at this World Cup was to make the quarter-finals and be the team of the tournament,” he said.

“When you are at the bottom of the food chain, you accept what you get. We have known the schedule for two years. The one thing about Japanese players is that they can keep rolling it out.

“It is not unusual for them to back it up. We’re not done yet. If we make the quarter-finals, I can retire and be like Sir Clive Woodward and take up a television job.”

Published: September 19, 2015 04:00 AM

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