Rugby World Cup 2019: The miracle of Brighton - How beating the Springboks set the stage for Japan

By Sports Desk September 18, 2019

Shortly after breakfast on September 19, 2015, a fresh summer-into-autumn Saturday in Brighton, the national rugby union team of Japan forsook the comfort of their Victorian seafront hotel for a gentle warm-up on the promenade.

Running through line-out drills on a basketball court was one way of focusing minds on the gargantuan task facing the team later that day, while stealthily introducing a little levity.

The sights, the smells, the sounds of the coast: ideal for untangling any ravelled minds. Staring out to sea, to their right stood Brighton's weather and fire-ravaged West Pier, evocatively skeletal; to their left, the iconic, bustling Palace Pier. Breathe in the sea air, feed all the senses, climb highest to grab a ball or two. The purpose was to be uplifted, in more than one sense. Japan were getting ready to put on their game face.

Handfuls of passers-by observed the group, decked out in red, black and white training garb, and a handful of those handfuls twigged the purpose of this limbering up.

From mid-morning beachside curiosities to global headline-makers by tea time, this is the story of the greatest upset in the history of the Rugby World Cup.

High hopes for Springboks

South Africa arrived at Heathrow on flights SA234 and SA236 on September 12, decked out in green and gold blazers, targeting a record-equalling third World Cup triumph. Their form had been shaky, with close losses to Australia and New Zealand followed by a head-scratching defeat to Argentina that saw them finish bottom of the Rugby Championship. Critics at home had their say, but the prevailing wisdom was that the Springboks would get it right when it mattered most. Only hosts England and the All Blacks were ahead of Heyneke Meyer's troops in the betting. Arriving by bus at their base in Eastbourne, they were received as heroes by locals and travelling Boks fans. A problem with seagull faeces at their training facility had been resolved, apparently, thanks to a groundsman and a hired-help hawk. All was well.

Eddie's swan song?

Japan were crudely characterised as rugby no-hopers in some quarters, but they had been in England for almost a fortnight by the time the Boks touched down, and reputedly together for around 120 days in camp before then. Eddie Jones, their former Australia coach, was not taking the job lightly. After all, he intended it to be his final hurrah to the international game. In the months leading up to the big day in Brighton, Japan had beaten Georgia, Canada and Uruguay, yet they had lost to Tonga, Fiji and the United States. They also struck a blow against South Africa six years earlier, when the International Rugby Board chose them above the 1995 and 2007 World Cup winners to stage the 2019 tournament. Japan were quietly confident of causing a shock or two during their stay in England, not that anybody outside their camp expected it to come on day two of the tournament.

The scene

The Falmer Stadium had hosted Brighton and Hove Albion football matches for four years, and the pristine new-build was controversially selected ahead of traditional rugby grounds such as Leicester's Welford Road to stage World Cup games. If there was a certain unfamiliarity, South Africa and Japan were in the same boat and the Springboks kicked off as 1/500 favourites to win the match. Moments before referee Jerome Garces' first whistle, those same line-out routines practised on the seafront were being repeated by the Brave Blossoms. Japanese fans had arrived from across the globe, but so too thousands in green and gold. Among their huge number was Ron Rutland, a former banker who had cycled from Cape Town, across Africa and Europe, to back the Boks.

What happened next will forever take some explaining. The Cape Times' correspondent Mike Greenaway, in his match preview, had invited Meyer's men to deliver an "emphatic opening statement", reasoning that "a good 50-point hiding will best announce that the Boks mean business". One UK news organisation, anticipating a routine South Africa win, despatched a reporter who had never covered a rugby game before.

The match

How the contest to-and-froed, South Africa four tries to two ahead but only tied at 29-29 with 10 minutes to play after dishing up a slew of penalties. Ayumu Goromaru feasted on their shambolic charity, his 24-point haul including a try, and even when Handre Pollard booted a penalty in the 73rd minute to nudge the Springboks in front, there remained a sense that history was in the offing.

Japan, pushing for the line and a man to the good after Coenie Oosthuizen's sin-binning, drove for glory with a minute left but could not ground the ball, the television match official making the call for an unsighted Garces. Chance gone? Not quite yet, not for these men with local sea air still lining their lungs. Japan almost scored in the right corner when captain Michael Leitch was blocked off just short. Those few dozen promenade gawkers had been replaced by 30,000 rapt rugby fans at close quarters, millions watching from home.

Then: Japan's finest rugby moment. Yu Tamura collected the ball from the ruck, and suddenly it was game on, a race to the opposite corner. Three perfect passes was all it called for, a relay with the rugby ball as its baton. It switched first from the hands of Tamura to Harumichi Tatekawa, and as the crowd roared Tatekawa fed Amanaki Mafi. One more successful pass and Japan would be home. Mafi offloaded and it was all down to Karne Hesketh, a New Zealander by birth, who had only come off the bench in the 79th minute. The former Otago wing gathered cleanly and charged for the line, defying JP Pietersen's desperate last-ditch tackle to dot down by the left flag pole.

The scoreboard showed Japan led 34-32, with time up.

Cue bedlam. Cue tears. Cue disbelief.

'Rugby at its finest'

"It's quite unbelievable," said Jones. "We always thought we could compete well today but to actually beat South Africa is a fantastic achievement for the team. If you're a young kid at home in Japan watching rugby now you'd want to play rugby at the next World Cup, so it's a fantastic thing for Japanese rugby."

Rutland, who would have been forgiven for being the most disappointed man on two wheels, tweeted it had been "a privilege to have witnessed such history on the pitch, and such amazing scenes between Bok and Japanese fans off it; rugby at its finest".

Joost van der Westhuizen and Chester Williams, both World Cup winners with the Boks, were among the disbelieving South Africans in Brighton. Four years later, neither man is still with us as another World Cup dawns, Van der Westhuizen succumbing to motor neurone disease in 2017 and Williams dying just two weeks ago.

Party time

Back at the Hilton Brighton Metropole on Japan's big night, a red carpet was rolled out to welcome back the heroes of the hour. Team liaison officer Jackie Takahashi later said "lots and lots of drinks" were consumed that evening at the hotel bar. One local reported 200 pints of beer being ordered by the team in a fell swoop. It was a night for such stories, and it hardly mattered whether any were embellished. The next morning, any hangovers were washed away by a squad dip in the sea.

No way Bok?

South Africa were at the lowest of low ebbs yet somehow they pulled themselves together to top Pool B before beating Wales 23-19 in the quarter-finals and losing only 20-18 to New Zealand in the semi-finals. Neither match lives so vividly in the memory as their horror show in Brighton, though. Japan lost their second pool match to Scotland but then saw off Samoa and the USA, cruelly missing out on a quarter-final place by two bonus points.

Pain plus time equals comedy?

This age-old theory does not yet apply to the Springboks, who continue to feel the wounds inflicted on England's south coast.

Bryan Habana, who played on the wing in that losing side, told Omnisport on the eve of the 2019 World Cup: "That day back in 2015 in Brighton, obviously from a South African perspective it was probably one of the darkest days in our history.

"Taking nothing away from Japan, but I think the manner in which we let ourselves down, our team-mates down, the jersey down and the country down was pretty disappointing. And mentally a massive challenge to get over."

He added: "Japan were incredibly well orchestrated through Eddie Jones and sort of got one over us by the mere fact that they were the better side on the day. They used their opportunities better and we were just poor in different facets of the game, which was not ideal, and not a memory I like to open up quite often about."

Japan's against-all-odds triumph may still be a hard-watch for South Africans but it inevitably became a film, with 'The Brighton Miracle' released this month: just don't expect to see it playing in too many Johannesburg or Cape Town movie theatres.

Shift in expectation

Japan were widely unfancied four years ago, but there has been an inevitable raising of the bar in expectation levels as they prepare to host this year's World Cup, even if the inspirational Jones is leading England these days. The Brave Blossoms won the recent Pacific Nations Cup after beating Fiji, Tonga and the USA, but a 41-7 seeing-to by South Africa - of all teams - on September 6 was a reminder they remain a second-tier outfit in global terms.

Reaching the quarter-finals this time is an obvious target, but head coach Jamie Joseph will probably need his team to beat Scotland or Ireland to do so.

Goromaru, who retired after his heroics in England, told World Rugby in September: "After the last Rugby World Cup the number of people interested in rugby in Japan increased dramatically. Before I left for the Rugby World Cup, no one had paid attention to rugby. Hosting Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan for me, not as a player but as a fan of Japanese rugby ... it will be amazing."

He will always have Brighton, and the famous afternoon that gave Japan a taste for success on the global stage. The current crop long to experience such euphoria, this time in front of a home crowd.

Eight of the 23 players from the Brave Blossoms squad that took down the Boks, including captain Leitch, were due to be involved against Russia in Japan's tournament-opening game this time.

"Everyone understands how important this event is going to be, but none more than our staff and the players themselves," said coach Joseph. "We want to make everyone proud and we will be doing our best to make sure that happens."

Related items

  • Rugby World Cup 2019: Ireland bring in Kearney, O'Mahony and Ringrose for All Blacks clash Rugby World Cup 2019: Ireland bring in Kearney, O'Mahony and Ringrose for All Blacks clash

    Rob Kearney, Peter O'Mahony and Garry Ringrose have all been brought into the Ireland team to face New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.

    Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has made three changes from the side that defeated Samoa 47-5, with Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Beirne and Bundee Aki all dropping out.

    Larmour scored a try and impressed against Samoa but the more experienced Kearney has got the nod at full-back and will win his 95th cap in Tokyo.

    Ringrose returns to partner Robbie Henshaw at centre after Aki's tournament was ended by a three-game ban handed down for his dismissal against Samoa.

    Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will surpass Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer as Ireland's most capped half-back pairing when they appear together for a 56th time at international level.

    O'Mahony comes back in at flanker as Ireland attempt to hand New Zealand their first World Cup defeat since a quarter-final loss to France 12 years ago.

    Ireland have won two of their past three meetings with the All Blacks, including their most recent encounter in Dublin 11 months ago.

     

    Ireland: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.

    Replacements: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour

  • Big Match Focus: Manchester United v Liverpool (Sunday 16:30 BST) Big Match Focus: Manchester United v Liverpool (Sunday 16:30 BST)

    Liverpool could equal an English top-flight record in grand fashion when their title assault takes them to a wounded Manchester United on Sunday.

    The Premier League leaders are sure to target three points knowing victory against their bitter rivals would be the perfect way to level Manchester City's benchmark of 18 consecutive wins at this level.

    Recent trips to Old Trafford have not been particularly profitable but the Red Devils, beaten 1-0 by Newcastle United last time out, look to be little more than a mid-table outfit at present.

    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men will not have won a match inside 90 minutes for a month in all competitions by the time the game kicks off, and the expected absence of David de Gea presents a further hurdle.

     

    POTENTIAL BREAKTHROUGHS FOR KLOPP AND SALAH

    Liverpool have won five Premier League matches at Old Trafford but none under Jurgen Klopp.

    The German's three draws and single defeat in four attempts add up to his longest winless streak in away games against a Premier League opponent.

    He might never have a better opportunity to halt the trend.

    United are lurching from one bitter blow to another and have laboured in home games against Crystal Palace, Astana, Rochdale and Arsenal this season, losing to the Eagles.

    Those subpar showings, coupled with Liverpool's own outstanding form, will have Klopp's men supremely confident of delivering victory for their manager.

    But with the missed chance of last season's 0-0 draw still fresh in the memory, there will be pressure on the visitors to take the initiative in attack.

    Mohamed Salah, who is recovering from an ankle injury, will hope to be fit as he, like Klopp, has something to prove in this fixture.

    Though prolific since his arrival on Merseyside, the Egyptian has failed to either score or assist a single goal in each of his four Premier League appearances against United.

    HEAD-TO-HEAD: SCOTT MCTOMINAY V FABINHO

    Scott McTominay this week shared insights into his warm relationship with Jose Mourinho, and the Scotland international will hope to make his former manager proud in a key battle.

    His opposite number, Fabinho, provides just the kind of shield United's defence will need if Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are to be kept quiet.

    Liverpool's midfield anchor has won 12 tackles this term, five more than McTominay, at a success rate of 60 per cent.

    McTominay's tackle success rate, at 44 per cent, is less impressive and, while the 22-year-old has certainly been one of United's best performers this season, his numbers lag behind Fabinho's in several departments.

    The Brazilian has created three more scoring chances in 61 fewer minutes on the pitch and his passing accuracy of 87 per cent is comfortably superior to McTominay's 81 per cent.

    FORM GUIDE

    Liverpool's long Premier League winning streak dates back to March and includes away wins over Southampton, Burnley, Chelsea and Sheffield United this season.

    James Milner's last-gasp penalty kept the run alive in a hard-earned 2-1 triumph over Leicester City at Anfield before the international break.

    United, meanwhile, are searching for answers following a string of lacklustre performances since outmuscling Chelsea on the opening weekend.

    The four goals scored that day hinted at a bright future but United have failed to net more than once in any of their subsequent 10 matches in all competitions.

    HISTORY SAYS…

    Victory will not come easily for Liverpool, who have not travelled to Old Trafford while top of the table since October 1996.

    On that occasion, a David Beckham goal gave United a 1-0 win.

    Results more recently have been similarly close, with four of the past six Premier League meetings ending level.

    Liverpool, the heavy favourites, must snap a five-match winless streak in away games against United in order to preserve their perfect start in the league.

  • Rugby World Cup 2019: Kolbe passed fit as Springboks revert to Italy team Rugby World Cup 2019: Kolbe passed fit as Springboks revert to Italy team

    Cheslin Kolbe has been declared fit for South Africa's Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Japan after overcoming an ankle injury.

    The star winger missed the Springboks' final pool match against Canada but has been restored to the side for Sunday, as coach Rassie Erasmus opts for the team that defeated Italy 49-3 a fortnight ago.

    It means 13 changes are made from the team that hammered Canada last weekend with hat-trick hero Cobus Reinach left out of the 23-man-squad completely.

    Duane Vermeulen wins cap number 50 as a number eight for the Springboks.

    Sunday's clash is a repeat of the 2015 World Cup Group B clash where Japan stunned the two-time champions with a 34-32 win in Brighton and Erasmus was looking forward to another tough challenge from the hosts.

    "We were satisfied with the performance against Italy and want to build that," he said during Thursday's team announcement.

    "We have been improving and building momentum this season and will be looking for further improvement this weekend.

    "Japan are a well-coached team and have deservedly climbed to seventh in the world. It will be a good challenge but we're definitely up for it."

    A place in the semi-finals next Sunday is at stake, with the winner of South Africa and Japan facing off against either Wales or France.

    South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Tendai Mtawarira, Mbongeni Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen.

    Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn.

© 2018 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.