20 Sep 2015

Japan's Brave Blossoms rock the Boks

6:07 pm on 20 September 2015

OPINION: Japan 34, South Africa 32. For all you who thought you may have woken up in a strange parallel universe, yes this result did actually happen.

Even those out there who have the faintest knowledge of rugby know that South Africa are historically really, really good at it.

Karne Hesketh scores.

Karne Hesketh scores the winning try. Photo: Supplied

To put this into context: They have won the Rugby World Cup twice. Japan had only won one MATCH in their entire world cup history, back in 1991 against fellow minnows Zimbabwe.

The TAB weren't even taking bets on Japan winning this game, this tweet by journalist Joseph Romanos summing up the general attitude of the media beforehand:

So, a hiding was on the cards in this Pool B clash but the Brave Blossoms had other ideas.

Captain Michael Leitch proved why they have the word 'brave' in their name by ordering a scrum and going for the win rather than kicking a penalty for a draw.

That will hopefully inspire other teams to chance their arm a bit more at the tournament. In the list of storied RWC upsets, this game is undeniably top.

However, the Springboks of 2015 could be described as unlucky at best and downright awful at worst.

Close losses to the Wallabies and All Blacks (both games they should have won) sit in the same column as a shock home defeat to Argentina.

Even still, this was far from a weak Bok side. Every player had plenty of test match experience and most tasted victory over the All Blacks last year at Ellis Park. The only notable omission was that of first five Handre Pollard, who was benched for Pat Lambie.

The Springboks, despite their patchy form this year, were seen as a likely semi-finalist, with many claiming they could go all the way for a third time.

Japan, meanwhile, seem to have got over their usual problem of not having any regularly strong competition between World Cups. They generally thrash all their Asian qualifying opponents, only to find that the teams that make the RWC are a little bit better than the likes of Singapore and Malaysia.

Part of this is due to the exposure of some key players to Super Rugby, with halfback Fumiaki Tanaka winning a title with the Highlanders this year and hooker Shota Horie having two seasons at the Rebels. They also have no qualms at all about picking foreign-born players, with half of their forward pack alone of New Zealand descent.

NRL fans will notice the name Craig Wing on the Japanese team sheet, yes that's the same guy who played 11 seasons for the Roosters and Rabbitohs. Karne Hesketh, who scored the dramatic last minute try, is a product of Napier Boys High School.

Francois Louw can't quite believe it.

Francois Louw can't quite believe it. Photo: Supplied

So just how did the Japanese do it? As incredible as their defensive effort was, they still leaked enough points that would usually lose a test match. The key here was that they backed themselves on attack; both Ayumu Goromaryu and Leitch's tries were the result of careful preparation and confidence that they could pull it off.

Hesketh's winner was this equation multiplied by 100, having the guts to go for a try when you're down by three with time up is something even the All Blacks would think twice about.

This result throws up all sorts of possibilities in Pool B, which also contains Manu Samoa, Scotland and the USA, but is hardly fatal for the Springboks, who should still progress through to the top of the pool.

They'll then face whoever came second in Pool A in their quarter final, which will most likely be the Wallabies or England. If they don't finish top, they're looking at whoever wins Pool D, which will be either France or Ireland. Given their record against all those countries, they may even be slightly favouring their chances more against the latter two.

As for Japan, they now have a very real chance of making it through to the quarters, but it will be hard work. After today, wins over the Scots and Manu Samoa no longer seem like long shots, plus they would've been targeting the US match as winnable anyway.

As long as they can take two wins out of those they'll set themselves up for a Cinderella story so unbelievable it'd make even the most hackneyed Hollywood scriptwriter blush.

While the Japanese will be grinning a mile wide, the RWC organisers will probably be just as happy. Up until Hesketh's try, this edition of the tournament had got off to a pretty poor start, with the television match official seemingly getting involved at every opportunity to comment on rulings.

This meant all the games so far had a run time of around 100 minutes each and creating a noticeable backlash in both the mainstream and social media. Now, all of a sudden, we get not only an unbelievable upset but a fantastically good game to watch as well and serious validation that this is a global event worthy of all the hype.

The Benchwarmer's Comment logo

Jamie 'The Benchwarmer' Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the sole highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game to anyone who'll care to listen.

The Benchwarmer's Comment will run throughout the World Cup on radionz.co.nz