BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - They came with their faces painted red and white, entire families swishing flags bearing the ‘circle of the sun’. They had come, imbued by that peculiar brand of Britishness which demands neutrals cheer for the underdog.
As dusk fell on the English south coast, their faces were a tear-streaked mess of pink, and their heads shook in disbelief after they had found themselves playing a vibrant part in the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history.
Japan, those bravest of Brave Blossoms, put twice champions South Africa to the sword 34-32, in a manner which rocked world rugby to its core.
“What?” shouted wide-eyed Maureen Pearte, a teacher who had travelled from London to watch the game.
Her one word refrain almost said it all.
Laughing as she left the stadium, she said: “I’m here with my South African friends, but... how good were ‘they’?”
She was right. ‘They’ had been superb, and remarkably catapulted Japanese rugby to the front page of newspapers around the world.
Euphoria was widespread.
“I love Japan,” grinned one local, who gave his name as Matt.
Sporting a white long-sleeved rugby jersey with the Japanese crest on his chest, he waved a plastic pint of beer in the air, his glassy eyes following it in its arc.
“I love Japan,” he said again. It was that kind of day.
There had been no element of luck in this triumph of heart and pugnacious spirit over a member of rugby’s aristocracy.
And if neutrals had been confused that, in picking unfancied Japan, they had chosen the wrong underdog, it was understandable.
For confusion reigned at Brighton’s Community Stadium where the Springboks’ supposed hors d’oeuvre played throughout like red-and-white striped All Blacks.
Full of heart, full of running and wielding lethal chop tackles to halt wave after wave of South African attack, before stealing the ball and countering at blistering pace, the Japanese looked every bit the equal of the twice champion Springboks.
And so it proved.
Chants of “Nippon, Nippon, Nippon” reverberated around the arena, normally home to English Championship football club Brighton and Hove Albion, as this most unlikely of results unfolded.
It wasn’t supposed to have been like this. The Japanese were meant to tire and flag against a nation boasting the best win rate of any in the world cup — more than 80 percent of their World Cup matches to date had ended in a Springbok win.
Not this time.
Superlatives can barely do the shock justice. Nor can they fully explain the manner of the upset.
Ultimately, aphorism may make a better fist of it. When all is said and done, the proverb ‘fortune favours the brave’ sums it up best, for the Japanese were nothing but courageous.
Time and again eschewing opportunities for a three-point penalty, instead they sought to batter through one of the toughest defensive units in the game in search of tries.
Never more so was this telling than at the death, when a draw with the mighty South Africans was a stone-dead penalty away. But once again the Japanese put faith in their ability when few in the crowd, or the banks of assembled commentators and experts, or the millions at home, shared that faith.
They were right, though, and on the last play of the game, replacement Kame Hesketh finally found a way through to clinch the most momentous win and put Japan — and Brighton — firmly on the rugby map.
Editing by: Mitch Phillips