Japan go in search of fresh World Cup miracle against ultra-wary South Africa

So disturbing was their last World Cup meeting with Japan that South Africa came up with a plan to expunge the memory.

Having seen the draw for this tournament and realised their paths would likely cross again, they arranged a friendly with the Brave Blossoms for just two weeks before it all got underway.

"The reason was to erase the Brighton game,” Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus admitted openly, referring to the greatest upset in World Cup history. “So that if we do play them that game hopefully doesn't get mentioned again.”

It was a nice try and might have worked had Japan struggled as much with the weight of host nation expectation as England did four years ago.

Had they not beaten Ireland, a side ranked No.1 in the world a fortnight before, then added the scalp of Scotland in the aftermath of a killer typhoon which left the country battered but unbowed.

But for all that and Japan becoming the first team from Asia to make the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup, last month’s rematch might have served a purpose.

But not now. Nobody is looking at Sunday’s quarter-final in Tokyo and thinking of last month’s friendly which South Africa won 41-7. All the talk is of Brighton, the sequel.

Since that heady day on the South Coast the extraordinary has become almost ordinary. There has been Trump, Boris and Brexit , Leicester have won the Premier League, Chicago Cubs the World Series.

But arguably none caused more of a stir than what Japan, without a World Cup win for 24 years, achieved in Sussex when beating two-time world champions South Africa.

“Whenever the little guy beats Goliath, it so enriches our lives and let's us all believe that the impossible is possible,” tweeted Olympic great Daley Thompson as the final whistle blew on Japan’s 34-32 defeat of the Boks. “Thank you Japan.”

Eight days earlier Eddie Jones' Japan had left Tokyo with players questioning why they had been made to travel in suits given there was not a soul at Haneda to see them off.

“When we leave here we’re going out in our suits with our heads held high,” explained Jones. “Because when we come back we will have changed history.”

The last-gasp victory was born out of two conversations. The first was between Jones and his players over a period of weeks, breaking down the mystique of the Springboks and creating a “beat the Boks” training routine which delivered them to the game convinced they could win.

The second took place over coffee between Jones and captain Michael Leitch on Brighton beachfront the morning of the game.

“Look, mate, we’ve got nothing to lose,” the coach told his skipper. “If you think we should have a go, have a go.”

With 13 seconds left in the game and Japan down 32-29 they were awarded a penalty. In the stands Jones screamed down to his coaches “take the three”.

Leitch thought for a moment, remembered Jones telling him to “go with your heart” and signalled for the scrum. The ball came out, Japan went left then right then left again. This time they had numbers and Karne Hesketh was over.

Cue pandemonium. Sitting in the press box that day there had been an inevitability about that final play. Thirty thousand fans – in both sets of colours, frankly – willed it to happen.

Next to me a Japanese journalist started crying. Within five minutes the whole place was awash.

The story of the ‘Brighton Miracle’ was turned into a major film, victory earned Jones the England job, a bumper wage packet and a book deal. For Japanese rugby the reward was belief.

From that day forth they knew they belonged. Which is why what Jamie Joseph’s squad have done in this tournament has been wondrous, but not so surprising.

Whether confidence and conviction and a devilishly good gameplan is enough to get them past South Africa a second time we will have to wait and see. But sleeping easy the Springboks will not be.

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