With time running out on England’s south coast four years ago, Japan’s rugby team orchestrated one of the biggest upsets in sport — one sparked by a breathtaking act of defiance.
Japan coach Eddie Jones screamed at his players to kick the penalty that would give the Brave Blossoms a remarkable draw against mighty South Africa in their 2015 World Cup opener in Brighton, but captain Michael Leitch opted to roll the dice.
As Jones buried his face in his hands, unable to watch, Leitch’s decision paid rich rewards as Karne Hesketh plunged into the corner deep into added time to trigger scenes of unbridled joy and forever change the face of Japanese rugby.
Their astonishing 34-32 victory over the two-time world champions was even made into a film called the “Miracle of Brighton” — released just in time for this year’s World Cup, which hosts Japan will open against Russia on September 20.
“That day Eddie and I had a coffee and he said ‘Just go with whatever you want to do. When you’re looking at going for the points or kicking for touch, just go with what you think is natural’ — that’s probably the best advice Eddie ever gave me,” Leitch told AFP.
“If I was smart I would have retired then and there and gone into the Hall of Fame.”
Jones will coach England at this year’s World Cup while Japan, now coached by former All Black Jamie Joseph, will look to tap into that buccaneering spirit when they also face Ireland, Scotland and Samoa in Pool A chasing a quarter-final place for the first time.
In a spicy “amuse-bouche” to the main event, Japan tackle South Africa in a World Cup warm-up game on Friday in Kumagaya, an hour north of Tokyo.
South Africa bounced back to reach the semi-finals of the 2015 tournament, but losing to Japan left its mark on the players — and was viewed as a national humiliation back home.
“They made a movie about the last time they played us -– it’s our job to make sure there’s no sequel,” said coach Rassie Erasmus.
While Japan and South Africa will have their own fixed targets, Friday’s game gives both sides the opportunity to assess their World Cup credentials.
“I’m not sure we can sneak up on a team any more,” admitted Joseph, who has selected 15 foreign-born players among his World Cup squad.
“There’s a reputation now that the Japanese play a good brand of rugby.”
Once the whipping boys of the World Cup, Japan were smashed 145–17 by New Zealand at the 1995 tournament in a record thrashing blamed for setting back the development of rugby in the country several years.
But that all changed four years ago when the Japanese caught the Boks with a classic sucker punch before producing further wins over the United States and Samoa.
Defeat by Scotland denied Japan a place in the knockout phase, but if they can bottle the magic they conjured in Brighton, they could go a step further on home soil.
“Back then we didn’t know what hard work was,” recalled Leitch.
“But with Jamie’s style the players have a lot more responsibility and accountability — the team has a lot more attachment to what we’re doing this time around.”