One of the best games of rugby I have watched in terms of sheer elation, was last weekend when after 75 minutes of watching Japan actually compete with the number 3 ranked rugby nation in the world, they managed the impossible. They won!
It wasn’t until the 85th minute that Japan secured their world shaking victory over the Springboks. And while I was delighted with the Brave Blossoms’ incredible performance, I never believed they were going to pull the upset off. I didn’t even believe they would manage a draw. These things just don’t happen in rugby when we are talking about one of the world powers vs a minnow. I accepted that Japan was going to have a very close loss to South Africa rather than being crushed by the Springboks, as I, and nearly everyone had predicted. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on watching the whole game…
Japan had other ideas. They made it impossible for me to stop watching. I never expected they would last the full 80 minutes, but I could not help but watch what was clearly one of their greatest performances. To have come close would have been unexpected, memorable, and impressive. But in the last few minutes they had a real chance to draw the game, something that would have been amazing in itself considering who they were playing. A historic draw against historically the best performing rugby nation at a world cup would be something to celebrate.
When Japan turned down the penalty kick that, if successful, would have ended the game with a draw, I thought that was it. They had played not only with amazing courage, but incredible determination and skill. This game would be talked about for a long time and unsettle the Springboks in a massive way. But it would still be a loss for Japan. And then Japan scored the try that won the game. I think it was the 83rd or 84th minute.
A win in extra time.
A win for Japan over the Springboks most experienced side ever fielded.
Coach Eddie Jones and Captain Michael Leitch said that they had targeted this game against the Springboks for the last two years. The Brave Blossoms had found the self-belief to take on the side that has consistently been the number 2 rugby nation in the world over the last decade. They had gone over every scenario for the game in their preparation. The players had given everything, and their win was one that showed the world how serious Japan can be as a rugby nation and as a worthy host of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The win was so shocking that for a few minutes, I wondered if the Springboks had thrown the game. I wondered if the game could have been an example of match fixing. Had this been done as a favor on the part of World Rugby’s administration to boost stocks in Japan given their status as the hosts of the next world cup? Or perhaps the Springboks wanted to finish their pool as runners-up to avoid a possible match with the All Blacks?
I was able to quickly dismiss these when I looked at the time on the clock. If the Springboks or the referee had wanted to give Japan the win then they would not have waited until extra time. If you go out there with the intent to throw a game, then why were you still in the lead in the 80th minute? Clearly, this was a case of Japan playing their best ever game, and the Springboks playing below their usual standard. Suddenly Argentina’s victory over the Springboks in Durban a couple of months ago looks less impressive. The Springboks have serious problems within their camp, and even more serious problems in terms of political pressure and lack of support. The combination was enough for the Brave Blossoms to create the biggest upset in rugby history.
So, was this game a fluke? Can Japan back this up with another win, this time against Scotland on Wednesday? With only a three day turnaround before once again taking the field, the Japanese players will be sore and perhaps mentally exhausted. Scotland, on the other hand, will be fresh and itching to play their first game in the 2015 tournament.
Ah, but the Springboks were ranked no. 3 in the world, and Japan was no. 13, whereas Scotland is, as of Monday, Sep 22, now ranked just below Japan. If Japan can slay a giant, then surely they can beat a relative equal?
Scotland always knew that their toughest games in their pool would be the Springboks and Samoa, in that order. Japan would have been challenging, but not exactly a threat. Japan is a team, after all, that has only ever won two world cup games. Suddenly, the other top five nations, New Zealand, Australia, England and Ireland (and perhaps even France, who should have already learned this lesson), were given cause for alarm. I think everyone felt the Springboks’ pain, even though everyone but South African supporters would have been cheering Japan’s unbelievable result. Scotland now have a must win first game against Japan, or their hopes of a real shot of getting into a quarter final will be gone.
Like I mentioned above, Japan put everything into their game against South Africa, including their hearts. They will be more than just physically exhausted and bruised. They are also dealing with a massive amount of media attention as they have become the darlings of the world cup and the feel good story that the media and public want. They are not used to the attention, and they are not used to winning on such a high profile tournament. They are going up against Scotland, who have been alerted to the threat Japan poses. Scotland will be extremely fresh and prepared. Back to back excellence is hard to achieve.
It will come down to skill and endurance on the day. While I may be cheering for Japan and hoping they can continue their success, I think it will be too much to ask. They aren’t quite the consistent side they need to be… yet. Here’s hoping I will be wrong. And as Japan have proved already, anything can happen in sport.