Rugby World Cup 2015: Underdogs help us dream of our own success

Sporting underdogs allow us to fantasise that we too can conquer impossible odds, says Sam Kitchener. And for plucky no-hopers, nothing beats the Rugby World Cup

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Eddie Jones, Japan's Australian coach, did try to take it in his stride, but he couldn't help himself. Reflecting at a post-match press conference on his team's extraordinary 34-32 victory over South Africa in the opening round of the Rugby World Cup, Jones possessed the overexcited air of a man who has had a speculative proposal of marriage accepted. Tremulous voice; breaking off every now and then to stare, rapt and disbelieving, into the middle distance; picking over the events in careful, occasionally confused detail; and embarking on tangents you could hardly begrudge him. When South Africa took a seven-point lead, he said, it looked as though they were going to run away with the game. “It's like the horror story: the woman goes for a shower at midnight, you know what's going to happen next.”

Permitting Jones, in his moment of glory, to pass off the plot of Psycho as some old folk tale, the twist he described was in its own way equally hackneyed. For, sure as David fells Goliath, and tortoise vanquishes hare, nearly every international sporting tournament sees the public's imagination captured by the exploits of some plucky underdogs. Ireland beating England by three wickets in the 2011 Cricket World Cup, say, or Cameroon beating defending champions Argentina 1-0 in the opening game of Italia ' 90.

When the North Korean team were based in Middlesbrough during the 1966 World Cup, the Teessiders adopted them as honorary local heroes. As they beat Italy 1-0, the BBC commentator Frank Bough remarked that Middlesbrough's home ground, Ayresome Park, “hadn't heard support like this for years and years” (possibly because Middlesbrough had just been relegated to the Third Division).

As sport becomes increasingly professional, results become increasingly predictable. The more established nations have the better training facilities and the easier routes to qualification. An upset reminds us that any game can turn on a moment of skill carried off by the unfancied, or of unaccountable dottiness displayed by the favourites. As Cameroon showed in 1990, all it takes is one soft header palmed by an Argentinian goalkeeper into his own net for 500-1 rank outsiders to beat the world champions.

Because we know comparatively little about these teams, we can also project on to them our own fantasies of sporting achievement. They are merely variations, in our minds, on those rag-tag semi-amateur units that pop up in football World Cup qualifiers: the ones from tiny countries where the goalkeeper is also the local fireman, and the right-back is a solicitor, and the false number nine is the foreign secretary. They aren't really professional sportsmen – not really.

As Devon Harris, a member of that improbable Jamaican bobsleigh team who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, told me: “When people look at underdogs, they see themselves”: little men or women struggling against the odds without the magnifying benefit of genius. And when we see underdogs succeed, that success allows us to believe that, given our native pluck and half a chance, we too might defeat the world champions.

For the watching media, of course, underdogs are always “plucky”. Courage certainly plays its part: not for nothing are Japan known as the “Brave Blossoms”. It took chutzpah to spurn the opportunity to tie the scores with a kick at goal in the closing moments of their game against South Africa, in favour of a chance to go for the win. It also took skill – England ballsed up a similar play against Wales last weekend. The emphasis on courage conceals a less romantic truth, which is that increasing professionalism is increasingly universal, and upsets increasingly likely. The Japanese team are no ingenues. Many have club-level experience abroad, and their domestic Top League is one of the highest paid in the world.

The relative inexperience of the underdog nations, though, does make it harder for them to sustain performances throughout a tournament. Seedings and schedules conspire to make it even more difficult. Japan followed their win against South Africa with a loss against Scotland, and will struggle, now, to qualify for the quarter-finals, though a big victory over Samoa this Saturday would help. Some established nations seem to begrudge the minnows swimming even this far. The International Cricket Council recently announced plans which might well exclude “associate and affiliate nations” (ie, all the underdogs) from the 2019 Cricket World Cup, in England and Wales.

In 1966, North Korea’s World Cup squad was adopted by Middlesbrough and appointed as honorary Teesiders


It will be cricket's loss. It will also be England and Wales's. Middlesbrough fans weren't just taken with the North Koreans' success in 1966 (although that helped). They were charmed by the courtesy of these young men from a communist republic against which Britain had fought a recent war; fascinated with how their fast-paced, industrious style of play invoked Chollima, a mythical winged horse who represented the North Korean revolutionary spirit, and was supposed to carry the worker or intellectual over vast distances.

Most people would agree that the defining moment of the Rugby World Cup so far took place in Brighton. Many think it unfolded in a packed Community Stadium, when Karne Hesketh ran to the corner in the final seconds against South Africa, stealing a famous victory for Japan. To my mind, that defining moment came before the tournament even started, in the less dramatic setting of St Mary Magdalen Catholic Church. The Samoan team, like the Japanese, are based in Brighton, and like most of their countrymen, they are very pious – refusing, for instance, to play on Sundays. On Sunday 13 September, they attended Mass at St Mary's. Again, like many of their countrymen, they are talented singers, and were invited to perform a Samoan hymn as the recessional.

Devon Harris (front) and Michael Morgan (rear), of Jamaica take part in the two-man bobsleigh event (Getty Images)

The scene is caught for posterity on YouTube (searching “Samoa Rugby Church” will do the trick). The church is lit through modest stained-glass windows with that pale sunshine peculiar to the South Coast. The Samoans, built like a small development of brick shithouses, and almost bursting from their Pacific-print shirts, fill the pews on the right-hand side of the aisle as you watch. To the left are the – predominantly elderly – regular worshippers, already sneaking curious glances at their guests. The priest and the ministers begin to leave, and the Samoans begin to sing, unaccompanied.

The singing is powerful, of course, and full of feeling, but also precise, tender – with delicate harmonies, sweetly overlapping lines. Most of the congregation aren't sure what to do with themselves. A slightly stooped, silver-haired woman looks around as if searching for an explanation. She tries not to stare. She stares. At one stage, it seems like she might be about to jump across the aisle and hug a Samoan in panicked but happy bafflement. When they finish, she leads the applause.

This bleary video captures why the triumphs of unheralded teams at international tournaments are so much more precious than the ordinary run of sporting upsets. They kindle respect and affection – inspire friendships, even – between cultures that might otherwise never encounter one another. South Africa beat Samoa by 40 points, a week after losing to Japan. Sometimes, though, it doesn't take a win for the underdogs to triumph.