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Against All Odds - No.1: Japan and the Miracle of Brighton

By Jon Newcombe
Japan celebrate their upset win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

When Japan host England in Tokyo on Saturday June 22, which is live and exclusive on RugbyPass TV in the UK and Ireland, they will attempt to strike a line through another name on the list of countries they have yet to beat.


Scotland, twice, and Wales and Ireland have all come unstuck against the Brave Blossoms but never England. Four capped matches have taken place between the teams, with the first of England’s four victories coming at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.

A further 31 years passed before they faced each other again, with England taking the honours 35-15. Twickenham was again the venue for the third meeting in 2022. And after threatening to beat their record score in 1987, England had to settle for a 52-13 win.

Following on from his man-of-the-match performance in that game, Freddie Steward was also on the scoresheet in Nice in the last encounter between the teams at Rugby World Cup 2023, England pulling clear after a tight first half to win 34-12.

So, history is against Japan this coming Saturday, but that was also the case when they were written off before their opening game against the Springboks at Rugby World Cup 2015.

Pre-match odds on the Brave Blossoms winning in Brighton ranged from 80/1 to 100/1, reflecting the size of the task in front of a team that had forgotten how to win at the sport’s showcase event.

Without a Rugby World Cup victory for 24 years and with only one tournament victory to their name – 52-8 against Zimbabwe in 1991, the Brave Blossoms’ record at Rugby World Cups was dire to say the least. Whilst on the other hand, South Africa had been beaten in the tournament on just four occasions.


Given that the teams were 10 places apart in the World Rankings, this looked the very definition of a mismatch.

At least Japan did not have any past RWC history against South Africa to weigh them down as was the first time the teams had met at Test level.

South Africa were punished for a nervous, error-strewn start when Japan took the lead thanks to an Ayumu Goromaru penalty.

Back-rower Francois Louw then calmed the Springbok nerves with a 17th-minute try from a driving maul. But having been denied a try by a TMO review, Japan reclaimed the lead with half an hour gone when captain Michael Leitch – still in the Brave Blossoms’ squad to this day –stretched out and scored from a lineout drive.


By now, Brighton was rocking for the first time since the Sixties.


Remarkably, Japan were more than holding their own at scrum-time; however, they were powerless to stop the Springboks matching them with a try from a lineout drive of their own, Bismarck du Plessis emerging from the pile of bodies with the score that edged the Springboks into a 12-10 half-time lead.

The second period began as the first half did – with a Goromaru penalty handing the Brave Blossoms the lead. However, their joy was short-lived as Lood de Jager announced his arrival on the world stage by powering through a gap in midfield to score and give the helter-skelter game another twist. With the conversion going over, South Africa led 19-13.

At that point, it seemed inevitable that Japan, brave in nature and in nickname, would wilt. Instead, Japan kept the pressure and two more Goromaru penalties meant it was level pegging.

With Pat Lambie and Goromaru trading further penalties, the scores were locked at 22-22 as the final quarter approached. Suddenly thoughts turned towards past Rugby World Cup shocks with the general consensus that Western Samoa’s epic win over Wales would be overshadowed if Japan could somehow steal themselves for one final push.

Adrian Strauss hadn’t read that particular script and the giant front-rower, showing a neat turn of pace for such a big man, crashed through some uncharacteristically poor tackling to make South Africa breathe a little easier.

But typical of the rest of the match, control of the scoreboard proved problematic and a wonderful try in the corner from Goromaru, which he converted himself restored parity, at 29-29.

If renowned novelist J.K Rowling felt compelled to tweet, “you couldn’t write this”, how could anyone else argue?

Handre Pollard hadn’t read the script though, his penalty edging the Springboks in front once again. But the most remarkable of matches was set for another twist when Leitch turned down the chance to go for goal, and the chance to draw the game, by opting for a scrum.

Collectively, the cherry and white clad fans in the Brighton Community Stadium held their breath – as well as the record 10million TV viewers watching back at home. Japan’s scrum held firm, and from that solid platform the ball was spun wide to the Karne Hesketh, whose finish started the biggest of parties.

‘I’m too old for this, at 55, I should be in Barbados watching the cricket. But the history has now changed for Japanese rugby,” said an emotionally drained Eddie Jones at the final whistle.

Jones, now 64 years of age, doesn’t do a straight bat, he normally comes out swinging. And you can bet that will be the case if he leads the Brave Blossoms to their first win over his former charges England after what he has been through these last few years.

Japan vs England on Saturday June 22 is live and exclusive on RugbyPass TV. Sign up for free here >>


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1 Comment
Red and White Dynamight 30 days ago

Without doubt, the greatest sport’s result EVER.

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Mzilikazi 3 hours ago
Daugunu salvo shows why Wallabies work-rate is everything to Schmidt

Nice article, Brett, and good to be writing about a second win. I think Georgia will be far more testing. Tbh, I have not looked at their touring squad, but at full strength they are a far better and more dangerous team than they were at RWC France. They would have been disappointed they did not perform to full potential there. I think that the WB’s under Joe Schmidt have started soundly. Recovery from a serious setback always takes time. And the Jones era was that and more. I think the arrival of Les Kiss back to his native Qld. is a very positive factor, and the fact that he and Schmidt know each other well is a help. Players I think are much improved this year: Daugunu, who has blossomed with the Rebels, so credit to the coaching unit down there. Am pleased he will come back to the Reds. McReight is said to have put on up to 7 kgs since last season. His work rate has always been good, but it is his carrying into contact that has gone up. Now makes those critical one or two metres post contact very often. Is conceding fewer penalties now as his game matures. Rob Valetini was good last year, but is now a greater force this one. A really punishing ball carrier. Hunter Paisami is now a more controlled player. His carrying into contact is very impressive for an 80 kg man. Interestingly, if you saw Nick Bishops latest article, he has a team for RC with Kerevi at 12. Also Skelton in the team. Not sure if there will be o’seas players as early as RC though….but need them in by the EYOT games.

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