Japan turned its first match up with mighty South Africa into the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history Saturday when the 1,000-1 shots won 34-32 in injury time.
Nearly four minutes into added time, replacement back Karne Hesketh charged into the edge of the left corner, the crowd’s roar could probably be heard in Tokyo, and Japan’s players collapsed to the ground in a mixture of joy and disbelief.
The noise level inside Brighton’s compact stadium gradually became deafening as Japan’s screaming red-and-white army of fans sensed a sensational result might actually happen when fullback Ayumu Goromaru screeched over into the right corner to make it 29-29 with 10 minutes to go.
Replacement flyhalf Handre Pollard kicked South Africa ahead with seven minutes left.
But after Japan refused to kick for a draw, persistence and ambition was rewarded as the ball was swept from right to left, and Hesketh squeezed through.
The Springbok scored four tries to flanker Francois Louw, hooker Bismarck Du Plessis, lock Lood De Jager, and replacement hooker Adriaan Strauss, but could never put daylight between themselves and the Japanese.
The 1995 and 2007 World Cup winners looked distraught, and some fell to the floor in disbelief as Japan’s players carried flags and stood in a line to wave and bow, as they milked the cheers of the delirious 30,000 crowd.
Despite only ever winning one World Cup match in its history, Japan — inspired by Goromaru’s audacity — simply never stopped believing.
They were right.
South Africa’s Coenie Oosthuizen was sin-binned with little more than one minute left for failing to roll away from making a try-saving tackle, and Japan waived off a chance to kick a tying penalty by setting up an attacking lineout. Japan smashed South Africa back with yet another inspired rolling maul that was held up right on the line.
Referee Jerome Garces called for a video replay, with crowd standing, anxious and awed. The try was not given, meaning Japan had one more scrum.
The scrum was reset. South Africa held firm — just — but the drama continued as another scrum packed down.
It seemed lost, as it looked — momentarily — as if South Africa turned the ball over. But Japan still had possession, and in the blink of an eye the ball was whizzed from right to left as the creaking Springbok line finally cracked.
As Hesketh was mobbed by his teammates in the corner, South Africa sat head in hands, towels on heads, as the crushing disappointment sank in.
A Springbok side packed with 888 test caps worth of experience was expected to make a statement of intent with an early and convincing win against Japan. But the opening 15 minutes belonged firmly to Japan, whose confidence soared as the majority of the crowd threw their backing behind the most outside of outsiders.
Japan forced the Springboks into frequent mistakes from the get-go. Pride stung, South Africa overlooked a chance to kick for points when awarded a penalty in the 17th minute and went for a try instead. It worked as flanker Louw battered his way over.
But amazingly, Japan bullied South Africa in the maul, advancing to the left corner as No. 8 Hendrik Tui was held up just short. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Japan did it again on the next go, shoving the Springboks back on another rolling maul as back-rower Michael Leitch got over to make it 10-7 to Japan.
Du Plessis saved face, somewhat, for the rattled Springboks when he crossed a minute later for an unconverted score. South Africa led 12-10 at the interval, but they had little to cheer.
Japan regained the lead not long after the restart, and moments later, the relief on the faces of the South Africans was evident as De Jager collected a quick pass and broke through a poor tackle to sprint over the line. South Africa was back in front at 19-13. Maybe now they would kick on.
No, mistakes in defence kept cropping up, and Goromaru slotted over two penalties to level the score.
South Africa flyhalf Pat Lambie soothed his team’s frayed nerves by nailing a big penalty from near the halfway line, only for Goromaru to respond again.
Japan’s tackling went missing when replacement hooker Strauss bounced off three players and crossed between the posts, but Japan brushed it off, and a brilliantly intricate four-man passing move ended with Goromaru darting into the right corner. The pressure was on to convert from wide right, and he glided his kick brilliantly over to set up a frenetic last 10 minutes.
The unthinkable happened; South Africa cracked, and Japan’s players threw themselves into each other’s arms at the final whistle.