The staff and guests of the Brighton Hilton rolled out the red carpet, literally, for Japan when the team that shook up the World Cup returned to their city-centre hotel on Saturday night.
Eddie Jones, Steve Borthwick, Ayumu Goromaru and the other unlikely lads who had unleashed the competition’s greatest shock result in the 34-32 win over two-time champions South Africa were cheered through the lobby across a hastily found piece of crimson rug, with a sense of achievement in their hearts they could barely believe themselves.
“This is the biggest World Cup ever in terms of the number of people attending and you’ve just seen the biggest shock in its history,” said Borthwick, the former Bath, Saracens and England second row and captain, who has been coaching Japan’s forwards for two years under Jones’ overall guidance. “The way the team played and to score the winning try at the end was phenomenal. It was always going to be a special tournament and after that it’s going to be even better.”
Goromaru, the goal-kicking, try-scoring full-back collected 24 points but it was Karne Hesketh, a hitherto unheralded wing from New Zealand who qualified for Japan on residency, whose last-minute try sent Sussex into the sporting stratosphere. The predicted economic impact of the World Cup coming to Brighton was upwards of £40m. Add a few more quid for Saturday’s extra orders of sake and sushi.
The bare statistics bear repeating. Japan, a rugby-loving country at student level with a small band of professional players, well looked after at corporately funded clubs, had won one World Cup pool match in seven tournaments. They were beaten 61-21 by the New Zealand Maori last year. They had never even played South Africa. “I’ve been in the country since 2010,” said the 30-year-old Hesketh, “and I’m playing for friends and family and for Japan. It was emotional but it was easy to feel like that when you know why you’re playing.”
Luke Thompson, the Japan second row and another converted Kiwi, said Borthwick was “pretty amazing”, as the Cumbrian continues his first coaching role after retiring from playing (he is expected to join Bristol after the World Cup): “He does a lot of work on video and we just have to go out there and put it into place. He gives us the pictures to see.”
South Africa were stuffed full of underperforming luminaries such as Bismarck du Plessis, who gave away penalty after penalty in the post-tackle area. The unavoidable impression was that their mental approach was miscued – that they thought, with 800-plus caps between them, it would eventually come right. It did not, and they face Samoa at Villa Park on Saturday with their reputations in meltdown; a home loss to Argentina earlier this year included.
Jean de Villiers, the captain whose place at centre could be under threat from the dynamic Damian de Allende, said: “I think I’ve got a massive role to play this week, all the leadership group have. But it’s up to every player to step forward.”
South Africa played soft-headedly, watched – to their horror, no doubt – by such past hard-heads Francois Pienaar and Kobus Wiese.
Tactically, Japan were brilliant, if not completely original. Schalk Brits, the Springbok squad hooker who also plays for Saracens, saw one move straight from the English club’s St Albans training ground – a shift and drive at the line-out, followed by a 12-man maul.
“Schalk’s claiming that one, is he?” joked Borthwick, who also caught up with former Sarries team-mates Ernst Joubert and Neil de Kock in the crowd. No, Steve, it was more of a tribute to you, for your team to pull it off. Little Japan shoving the mighty Boks over their own goal-line?
As Thompson put it: “It’s still pretty surreal, to be honest. We can’t quite comprehend what we’ve achieved. We’ve created history. That’s what we set out to do at this tournament and the boys will be proud of ourselves. But it’s important to realise this isn’t the end of the tournament.”
Scotland are next, punishingly soon for Japan, at Gloucester on Wednesday.
“There’s no moaning from us about the schedule,” said Jones. “And one thing about Japanese players is they can keep rolling it out. They are used to training four hours a day in high school, five hours a day in university, so it’s not unusual for them to back up.”Reuse content