Japan’s epic 34-32 upset of perennial contenders South Africa has set the Rugby World Cup alight on just the second day of the tournament, emphatically quashing any notion that the group stage would be a an inevitably dull procession until the eight (mostly predetermined) heavyweights assembled for the ‘real’ games in the knockout phase.
Pool B is now anyone’s, with Scotland and Samoa now very real chances of finishing atop the group – although neither will be taking Japan lightly after the Brighton boilover. Taking first spot in the so-called ‘pool of death’ may become something a poisoned chalice, with the Pool A front-runner’s dubious reward now a good chance of being a quarter-final showdown with a bristling Springboks outfit.
Only a few hours early, Georgia also sprung a king-sized surprise with a 17-10 defeat of quarter-final hopefuls Tonga. The Georgians fired a warning shot across the bow of pool-mates Argentina, who in turn produced a gallant performance in a 26-16 loss to New Zealand at Wembley after leading the mighty All Blacks at halftime.
Fiji, too, were far from disgraced in a tournament-opening defeat to hosts England, despite the convincing 35-11 scoreline; the Islanders trailed by just seven inside the last 15 minutes before running out of steam. USA scored the best try of the RWC’s opening weekend, a long-range team effort in a stoic 25-16 loss to powerful Samoa to confirm Pool B as the group with no minnows.
All paled in comparison to The Cherry Blossoms’ heart-stopping triumph over the ‘Boks, however. Besides the myriad potential quarter-finals scenarios the stunning result has now created, it was the way Japan pulled off the win that was so stirring.
Fighting back from 29-22 down to level with a brilliant try with 11 minutes to go. Falling behind again via a South Africa penalty but keeping their composure. Holding the ball for 20 incredible phases as they worked the ball from their own 22 to the Springboks’ try-line, then twice turning down the opportunity to take a penalty shot at goal that would have drawn the match.
An honourable but heartbreaking loss or a euphoric victory. Death or glory. No in-between.
A nerve-jangling scrum marathon, another seven phases and then, finally, ex-Otago winger Karne Hesketh’s now-iconic try in the left-hand corner in the 85th minute.
It was impossible not to get swept up in the emotion – the elation of the players, the tears in the grandstands (particularly the little old Japanese bloke that the cameraman picked out frequently during the dying stages), the noise and atmosphere at Brighton Community Stadium (a decidedly pedestrian name for the location of such a momentous event) and Eddie Jones’ understated celebrations up in the coach’s box.
It was electrifying and, at the risk of stepping into the realms of hyperbole, life-affirming.
Making the result all the more incredible is the fact Japan has been a perpetual World Cup underachiever, competing in all seven previous tournaments but winning just one of their 21 matches – way back in 1991.
Although it wasn’t the first of its kind, it was almost certainly the biggest, and it was the type of unforgettable match that defines World Cups as much as the championship encounters at the business end.
Western Samoa’s 16-13 triumph over history-steeped Wales on World Cup debut in 1991 was one of the finest. Fiji subjected Wales to another shock defeat in 2007, while Argentina stunned France at the same tournament. Eventual runners-up (a status that makes South Africa’s current plight seem less severe) France were on the wrong end of a boilover again in 2011, going down 19-14 to Tonga, two weeks after Australia crashed to a 15-6 loss at the hands of Ireland.
All bombshell results are held in equally high esteem (sometimes even more so) as the dour deciders between two giants of world rugby that concluded those tournaments.
The same sentiment rings true across World Cups in other sports.
Comparative lightweights Ireland (2011) and Bangladesh (2015) knocked over England at the previous two Cricket World Cups, Kenya stunned West Indies in 1996, and then-minnows Sri Lanka set the tone with a massive upset of Australia in 1983.
USA (1-0 v England in 1950) and North Korea (1-0 v Italy in 1966) sprung shock results in the FIFA World Cups early heyday. Algeria’s greatest sporting moment came when their football side – 1000-1 outsiders – downed World Cup favourites West Germany in the 1982 tournament. Cameroon were the sensations of the 1990 World Cup after beating defending champs Argentina. Senegal beat France in the upset of the 2002 group stage, before South Korea went on a giant-killing spree with knockout wins over Italy and Spain.
Even the relatively low-profile Rugby League World Cup has had its great underdog moments. The 2013 tournament was energised by the surprise fairytale runs of Scotland and USA, who knocked off pool heavyweights Tonga and Wales respectively to advance to an unlikely quarter-final berth. The Tomahawks’ heroics in their debut World Cup campaign even sparked a tribute song by The Wiggles.
New Zealand, or England, or Australia, or even South Africa may carry off the William Webb Ellis trophy after the October 31 final, but in the hearts of rugby supporters worldwide the 2015 World Cup will almost certainly belong to Japan.