The rugby world has reacted with praise and astonishment after Japan pulled off the biggest upset in the sport’s history with a last-gasp victory over South Africa in their opening game of the World Cup.
As Japanese sports fans digested the enormity of their compatriots’ feat in Brighton in the small hours of Sunday morning, rugby stars past and present took to social media to applaud the tactical brilliance of the Brave Blossoms and their Australian coach, Eddie Jones.
Japan’s 34-32 victory, sealed with a late try by New Zealand-born Karne Hesketh, is expected to galvanise the public amid chaotic preparations for the next rugby World Cup, which Japan will host in 2019.
By lunchtime on Sunday Japan was still struggling to take in the historic win on the Sussex coast. The result came too late for most newspapers’ deadlines, and TV networks stuck to their normal schedules.
Later editions carried news of the victory on their front pages. Sun Sports heralded the most famous victory in the history of Japanese rugby with the headline: “Global impact!” before praising Jones for masterminding an “historic” win, while Tokyo Sports carried a large photograph of the team celebrating their win.
Before last night, Japan had not won a World Cup game since 1991, while South Africahave twice lifted the trophy, in 1995 and 2007.
The online edition of the Sankei Sports tabloid ran with a headline describing the result as the “biggest” in the history of the tournament and noted that Japan’s win had elicited a response from JK Rowling. The author of the Harry Potter books said of the result: “You couldn’t write this.”
Some of the game’s best-known figures voiced astonishment at Japan’s feat, with former England coach Clive Woodward, who steered his side to the World Cup title in 2003, saying: “Wow – biggest calls in history of World Cup – Japan no kicks for goal / totally best game ever in World Cup history – Eddie Jones brilliant”.
Jonny Wilkinson, whose late drop-kick sealed England’s World Cup final win in Australia 12 years ago, said: “A brilliant performance by Japan, simple as that. My heart racing after that last few minutes. World Cups are great & no one is safe.”
The former All Blacks star Jonah Lomu said the match was “why we watch and play rugby,” adding, “Rugby World Cup has come alive with this result”.
Speaking to reporters after the match, Jones, who was technical advisor to the Springboks at the 2007 World Cup, described the result as “quite incredible”, while his South African counterpart, Heyneke Meyer, could only apologise: “I have to apologise to the nation,” Meyer said. “It was just not good enough.”
Jones predicted the win would boost interest in rugby in Japan, where the sport has yet to match the popularity of baseball and football despite the launch of the semi-professional Top League in 2003.
Jones, who has said he will step down as Japan coach after the tournament, predicted that Ayumu Goromaru and other star players could become household names along with baseball players and footballers, such as Keisuke Honda and, before him, Hidetoshi Nakata.
“Now history has changed for Japanese rugby,” he said. “Now we’ll have kids back home who wanted to be baseball or soccer players like Keisuke Honda, or like Nakata who want to be the next Goromaru,” Jones said.
One Twitter user poked fun at the deflated South Africans by posting a photo of a Springbok, its neck clasped in a pair of chopsticks, along with the hashtag #StrongerThanTheBoks.
Japanese rugby fans were ebullient after their team won only their second world Cup match after their 52-8 victory over Zimbabwe in 1991. Twitter user @brigadewingpraised the British media’s coverage, but complained that the match had not been shown live on terrestrial TV in Japan.
The unexpected victory has come at just the right time for Japanese rugby officials, whose preparations for the 2019 tournament were thrown into disarray when a the design for the main stadium, which will host Olympic track and field events at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, was scrapped amid soaring costs.
Japan dramatically ditched British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid’s original design at the request of the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in July after costs ballooned to 252bn yen (£1.3bn), almost twice the initial estimate.
Although the search for an alternative design means the new Olympic stadium will not be ready in time for the rugby World Cup, World Rugby officials said there were no plans to seek an alternative host.
“I was told that once the England tournament is over, cooperation with Japan will start immediately,” Yoshro Mori, vice president of the 2019 tournament’s organising committee, said on Friday, according to Kyodo News.
Kyodo quoted Japanese rugby officials as saying the opening game would be held at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium, which has a capacity of around 50,000, with the final taking place at the 72,000-seat Nissan Stadium in Yokohama.
- The Guardian