Remembering The Biggest Upset In Rugby World Cup History

Date IconLast Updated: 28 Sep 2022
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Remembering The Biggest Upset In Rugby World Cup History
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It will forever be immortalised as The Miracle of Brighton. Rugby union minnows Japan, the Brave Blossoms, confronted by the then two-time Rugby World Cup winning juggernaut South Africa on England’s breezy south coast.

Nobody gave them a hope, least of all the bookies with fanciful odds of 66/1. By comparison, before James “Buster” Douglas KO’d the undefeated “Iron” Mike Tyson to win the world heavyweight crown in Tokyo in 1990, only one Las Vegas casino was willing to offer odds: at 42/1.

The Springboks, boasting 851 caps between them, were runaway favourites at 1/200 with Paddy Power and a huge handicap of -42. Yet the Japanese players that stepped onto the field that day were ready. This was their moment. For four months previously, in the sapping humidity of Miyazaki on Japan’s Pacific coast, head coach Eddie Jones had been whipping his players into a frenzy.

“Beat The Boks” was their tournament mantra, plastered around the training ground, around the team hotel, in the dressing room, etched into their minds. And that day, they caught an ageing, creaking Springbok side ripe for an upset.

Fortune Favours The Brave Blossoms

Pretty soon the Springboks realised they were in a fight.

At half-time, with two tries to one, South Africa held a narrow lead at 12-10. With 18 minutes to play, Adriaan Strauss powered over to leave Japan trailing 29-22. Then Japan fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who contributed 24 points, scored a mesmeric team try, scything through the Springboks like a samurai sword through biltong, to set up a compelling climax.

With seconds left to play the match was poised at 32-29 to South Africa. Japan, camped on the Springboks’ five metre line, won a scrum penalty, within a kickable distance of the sticks. A successful three pointer would have levelled the match at 32-32. But Japan captain Michael Leitch had other ideas.

Another dominant scrum set the platform as the men in red and white swept right, with Leitch held up just short. Urged on by a packed stadium and millions witnessing history around the world, Japan went again, spinning the ball wide to replacement winger Karne Hesketh to stretch over in the left corner and spark the sporting world into pandemonium.


Japan Shock Rocks Boks

Overnight, Goromaru became a household name and pin-up boy in Japan, both among rugby fans and those who had no clue what the sport, a distant third behind soccer and baseball, was all about.

England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward hailed the courage of captain Leitch. “Wow - biggest calls in history of World Cup - Japan no kicks for goal / totally best game ever in World Cup history - Eddie Jones brilliant,” he wrote on Twitter.

Late All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu underlined the significance of the upset, writing: “This is why we watch and play rugby. Anything can happen. Rugby World Cup has come alive with this result.”

Speaking after the match, Eddie Jones, beaming like a Cheshire cat, remarked: “It’s quite incredible. We thought we could compete but to beat South Africa is a fantastic achievement for the team and it's a great day for Japanese rugby.

"Today is just the start. If you are a child in Japan you will watch this and you will want to play rugby for Japan in the next World Cup."

South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer, red faced through a mix of rage and embarrassment, felt compelled to apologise to his rugby loving nation. “It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility.

"Every game is going to be tough but there are no excuses. I still believe we can win the World Cup, but I have to press some hard buttons to try to fix it."

Japan Celebrate

Four Years of Hurt

What happened next? Scotland spoiled the party. Four days later the Scots beat Japan 45-10 in Gloucester, before Japan responded with victories over Samoa and the USA in their pool.

Before Brighton, Japan had won just once in 24 matches spanning seven World Cups. Now they had a hat-trick, yet with bonus points counting against them, they missed out on the quarters, becoming the first team to win three pool matches and not progress.

Perversely, the wounded Springboks struck back with thumping wins over Samoa, Scotland and the USA to storm into the knockout stages. There they snuck past Wales 23-19 in the quarters before losing 18-20 to eventual champions New Zealand in the last four, taking third place with victory over Argentina.

Despite their differing fortunes during the tournament, that stunning 80 minutes had huge ramifications for both sides that has stretched to the eve of this year’s Rugby World Cup, which kicks off on September 20 as Japan face Russia in Tokyo.

For two years the Springboks struggled to shake off the side effects of that day in Brighton. Meyer departed after the tournament to be replaced by the hapless Allister Coetzee who could only muster a win record of 47%.

He was soon jettisoned in favour of current head coach Rassie Erasmus, who in a little over 18 months has steered South Africa back to form to win their first Rugby Championship in a decade and at 9/2 with Paddy Power, become second favourites for 2019 tournament glory.

A Blockbuster Sequel?

For the Brave Blossoms, the Miracle of Brighton and knowledge the next World Cup is on home soil, has given the team real belief. They’re also in good form, having won the Pacific Nations Cup with victories over Fiji, USA and Samoa over the summer and climbing to ninth in the world rankings, equalling their best ever position.

Although that day in 2015 was an upset of such seismic proportions that a movie about it, The Brighton Miracle, has just been released, Japan are no longer just playing the plucky underdogs.

With head coach Jamie Joseph in charge and Leitch still captain, they’re no longer seen as pushovers and have realistic hopes of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time.

While their odds are still long, at 150/1 to win the tournament, fellow Pool A rivals Ireland (10/1) and Scotland (50/1) will have to be on their guard to avoid a blockbuster Brighton sequel.

As the Brighton protagonists prepare for Friday’s encounter in Kumagaya, north of Tokyo, their first showdown since that unforgettable day in 2015, just six players remain for Japan. On the other side, eight survive for the Boks, with revenge and redemption undoubtedly at the forefront of their minds.

The greatest compliment to Japan’s progress four years on is that, at 15/2 with Paddy Power, a repeat performance by the Brave Blossoms would no longer be seen as quite the miracle it once was.