Japan-based British rugby writer RICH FREEMAN recalls the day the Brave Blossoms shocked the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup.
20 September 2015 is a day that Japanese rugby fans will always remember.
On the field, the 34-32 win over South Africa marked the day that the Brave Blossoms went from a team best known for its humiliating defeat to the All Blacks at the 1995 World Cup to the side that pulled off arguably the biggest shock rugby has ever seen.
Eddie Jones’ master plan to ‘Beat the Boks’ – the sign that was plastered all over the Brave Blossoms camp in Miyazaki – saw Japan become the darlings of world rugby.
Karne Hesketh’s try became one of the most-watched clips on TV, Ayumu Goromaru became an international superstar and Jones ended up on a huge poster overlooking Ginza crossing.
Rugby had suddenly become the in-thing, and its timing could not have come at a better time.
Because, if truth be known, Japan rugby was within a whisker of perhaps an even more humiliating defeat than that 1995 hammering suffered at the hands of New Zealand.
Relations between the Japan Rugby Football Union and World Rugby had soured considerably two months prior to the start of the 2015 World Cup with the news that the new national stadium would not be ready in time to host the 2019 tournament.
World Rugby felt it had been lied to and while it publicly agreed to the JRFU’s revised road map for the tournament, plans had started to be put in place to ensure another country was ready to act as host, should Japan have the rights taken of them.
To add to Japan’s worries, plans for the Sunwolves’ inaugural season had not gone to plan and there were whispers from Sanzar (as it was known then) that the team may be scrapped before it had even played a game.
Of course, all talk of taking anything away from Japan disappeared following the ‘Miracle in Brighton’. But it is important to realise the backdrop to that incredible day.
Arriving in Brighton a few days before the game, the general feeling (apart from those who had knowledge of what had happened in Miyazaki) was that Japan were set for another hiding.
The Brave Blossoms’ form leading into the tournament had not been great and most were expecting two-time World Cup winners South Africa to run up a cricket score.
The night before the game I watched the opening ceremony and the first game of the tournament surrounded by South Africans.
A friend of mine, Ron Rutland, had cycled from South Africa to England and was holding a party in Brighton to celebrate his achievement. (In an amazing twist of fate, Rutland is currently on his way from England to Japan along with James Owens and the referee’s whistle for the opening game on 20 September between Japan and Russia.)
But back to Brighton, and Rutland and his compatriots were thinking nothing other than a big win for the Springboks.
Former Bok captain Morné du Plessis told me he thought it would be close for 50 minutes or so before the Boks ran away and won by 30 points or so. Rutland thought there would be 50 points between the teams while TV announcer Dan Nichols said he thought the men in green would reach triple figures.
I simply smiled and told them this Japan team had been training very hard and that it may be tighter than they imagined. Little did I know quite how tight!
The next day was, as Jones described it, ‘a glorious day. The sun was out and everyone was wearing T-shirts even though it was only 12 C.’
My initial plan was to head down to the fan zone to meet some old teammates from Yokohama Country & Athletic Club. But a phone call from the manager of the Japan 2019 organising committee desperate for some positive news put pay to that idea.
With Japan struggling to even get support from its Asian neighbours, given the recent run-in with World Rugby, Koji Tokumasu told me the JRFU were pushing for a second Asian team to participate in the next tournament.
This was, however, dependent on Japan finishing in the top 12 in England and that, of course, meant winning at least two out of four games – the first of which was just hours away from kicking off. But it ensured there was some positive news on a day when there was expected to be not a lot of good news for the large number of Japanese journalists in England.
Having filed my story with Kyodo’s office in New York, I then headed to the fan zone.
Fans from both countries were out in force but as was expected it was the South Africans, many of who had travelled north with plentiful supplies of biltong, who were the more relaxed.
That same feeling prevailed at the ground with my South African journalist friends in confident mood.
Little did any of us realise what was about to happen.
While the game ended up being a dream result for all rugby fans – bar South Africans – it was a nightmare for those covering it, especially those from Japan as the time delay meant we had to file our story immediately on the final whistle.
I lost count of how many rewrites I did during the course of the game as it slowly became apparent we were witnessing something special.
From ‘courageous first half in losing cause’ to ‘held their own for 70 minutes against one of the best teams in the world’ to ‘pulled off a huge shock in drawing with South Africa’.
The last sentence was erased with a loud shout and some pulling of the hair as Michael Leitch for the second time in as many minutes turned down a kick at goal to pull the sides level.
With one eye on my computer and another on the action, I had started to write ‘Leitch’s gamble fails’ when the captain went down the blind side. Quick ruck ball ended up in the hands of Atsushi Hiwasa and I suddenly thought ‘This is on. Go left, go left’. And they did just that with Hesketh making sure all hell broke loose.
The job now was to write what I had just seen. And it was not easy.
A Japanese friend of mine ran down from the back of the stands, jumped into the media area and gave me a huge hug. I was surrounded by grown men crying their eyes out (and that was the journalists – heaven knows what the fans were doing), while my South African friends were sitting there in shock before very graciously congratulating all the Japanese reporters.
The rest of the evening was something of a blur as I had to write a number of stories and do phone interviews with radio stations around the world. I also tried to answer the many, many messages I received congratulating me (a British writer who happened to write about Japanese rugby) on the win!
Finally, at around midnight, a couple of colleagues and I managed to get out for a quick celebratory drink during which we had our hands shaken countless times – my workmates because they were Japanese and me because I was wearing a Rugby News Japan and was part of the amazing upset by association!
As the days passed though it became a lot clearer just how important the result is and what it meant to people around the world.
YouTube was full of videos of fans in bars and fan zones around the world celebrating Hesketh’s try and all the talk now was of Japan 2019.
The game had saved Japan’s right to host this year’s tournament. It had shown that Japanese players were competitive with the best in the world and had also saved the Sunwolves.
For a few months, rugby was the in-thing – I remember on my return to Japan watching my daughter’s elementary school play in which 10 girls all did the ‘Goro kicking pose’.
Sadly, however, the momentum did not last for as long as it should have, and a number of players involved in the game in Brighton expressed their disappointment.
However, as we have seen with the Sunwolves fans, the 2015 World Cup did lay a base for what can be expected later this year.
Japan fans were suddenly not afraid to show their passion. The camaraderie and sportsmanship of rival supporters was applauded and the mental strength the players had developed has seen them go on and put in some good wins under Jamie Joseph.
For someone who has seen more than a few poor Japan performances in empty soulless stadiums, it really was a ‘miracle’.
The big question is was it a one-off or is it the norm for Japanese rugby moving forward?
– This is the English version of an article Freeman wrote for Japan’s Rugby Magazine.