Japan’s Cherry Blossoms have caused the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history as replacement Kame Hesketh scored a dramatic last-minute try to beat two-time winners South Africa 34-32 in their opening Pool B match.
Japan players and fans shed tears of joy at the end of a thrilling encounter that ebbed and flowed, but victory was fully deserved after a tenacious performance by the underdogs at the Brighton Community Stadium on Sunday morning.
South Africa had sounded a note of caution ahead of the game, but few, if any, would have predicted defeat at the hands of an opponent that had previously won only once in 24 World Cup outings.
The Boks outscored Japan four tries to three, but the kicking of full-back Ayumu Goromaru, who also scored a try for a personal 24-point tally, kept Japan in the contest to set up a remarkable last eight minutes of pressure under which the Boks finally buckled.
“We’ve worked for this for the last four years,” victorious captain Michael Leitch said immediately after the game.
Ferocious tacking from Japan kept them within two points of the Springboks at half-time after driving mauls brought tries for South Africa’s Francois Louw and Bismarck du Plessis, with Leitch touching down for Japan.
The reliable boot of Goromaru nudged Japan in front early in the second half, but that was quickly cancelled out by a try from South African lock Lood De Jager.
Both sides exchanged a series of penalties before Springboks snatched another try when replacement Adriaan Strauss burst through the defence. But then Japan found space out wide, sending Goromaru in at the corner; his conversion levelling the scores.
Another Springbok penalty looked like breaking Japanese hearts, only for Hesketh to grab his place in rugby history in the final play of the game.
Springboks coach apologises
South African coach Heyneke Meyer apologised to his country for what he said was an “unacceptable” performance by the Springboks.
“I have to apologise to the nation. It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility,” Meyer said.
Meyer was left to rue his team’s ill-discipline in an encounter strewn with penalties.
“Every time we got playing we scored tries, but our discipline was just not good enough. You can’t give away soft penalties. There are no easy games in this competition,” he said.
South Africa’s Fourie du Preez, who plays his club rugby in Japan, described the result as the low point of his career and said the Springboks had been “outsmarted”.
“I’ve been playing there (Japan) for four years, so I knew what was coming. I tried to let the guys know during the week that they are a proper nation,” he said.
“They were probably just better prepared than us, they had a lot of focus areas where they targeted us. They just outsmarted us.”
Springbok captain Jean de Villiers told the BBC that South Africa could still bounce back.
“There is still a possibility to make it out of the group and we need to win every game we have left, but it is hugely disappointing. The character of this side will be tested,” he said.
“It is not doom and gloom but a massive dent to us.”
SCOREBOARD: SOUTH AFRICA 32-34 JAPAN
|in Brighton, September 19 2015|
|South Africa: F Louw, B du Plessis, L de Jager, A Strauss tries; P Lambie 2 cons, pen; H Pollard con, pen|
Japan: M Leitch, A Goromaru, K Hesketh tries; A Gorumaru 2 cons, 5 pens