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Japan's fairy tale win lifts a nation

2015-09-20 10:20
An unlikely victory! (AP)

Tokyo - Japan ended 24 years of hurt by inflicting the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history on South Africa -- a huge lift to national spirits that should also quash fears of losing hosting rights to the troubled 2019 tournament.

As bleary-eyed fans awoke with hangovers across Japan, the significance of the seismic last-gasp 34-32 triumph over the Springboks in the early hours of Sunday morning local time -- only their second win at a World Cup after beating Zimbabwe in 1991 -- was already being felt.

"History!" screamed Japanese media almost universally, while the Nikkan Sports daily noted that Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling had tweeted that not even she could have conjured up such a magical plot twist.

"Underdog refuses to take the draw, plays for the win, gets it in the final min... maybe in Quidditch, but real life?" the author tweeted, referring to the wizarding game of her books.

The recent decision by the cost-cutting Japanese government to scrap plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic stadium had left rugby officials scrambling to find a new venue for the final and raised concerns over the country's ability to stage the event.

South Africa had even hinted they would be prepared to step in as replacement hosts, an offer almost certainly killed off by Karne Hesketh's injury-time match-winning try for the "Brave Blossoms" in the Pool B opener.

Meanwhile 6,000 miles away, before dawn had broken, staff in one corner of Tokyo sheepishly began clearing up after a barbecue party on the lawn of the South African embassy fell flat.

Japan coach Eddie Jones, who compared Saturday's Pool B clash with the Springboks to David and Goliath, said: "I had to look at the scoreboard at the end just to see if it was true or not."

His Brave Blossoms were not given a prayer with Japan's only previous entry into the World Cup notoriety having been for the record defeat -- crushed 145-17 by New Zealand in 1995.

Japanese fans wept with joy after their team's refusal to take three points and a draw with a kickable penalty as time expired in order to go for the winning try, a decision former England coach Clive Woodward described as "the biggest in the history of the World Cup".

Jones, whose Australia side were beaten by Woodward's England in the 2003 World Cup final, predicted Japanese schoolchildren who might normally dream of playing baseball or football, could turn to rugby after seeing their heroes stun mighty South Africa.

"There are kids at home who will want to play rugby at the next World Cup now," said Jones.

"Kids who wanted to be the next (Masahiro) Tanaka at the New York Yankees or (Keisuke) Honda at AC Milan will now want to be Michael Leitch or Ayumu Goromaru."

The memory of that monumental defeat by New Zealand in 1995 had stalked Japan at every World Cup, until now.

Around 200 guests sipping champagne at the South African embassy in Tokyo were left stunned as Japan exorcised their demons in spectacular fashion.

"The Japanese went nuts when they scored the winner," said Jon Day, who attended the function. "There were lots of tears, and talk of how Eddie (Jones) is a genius."

"Oh my God!" yelled 21-year-old student Kaori Ishibashi after watching a repeat of the match at a Tokyo bar on Sunday morning. "Goromaru is a stud! Eddie Jones is a stud!"

As social media lit up, several memes twisted the knife into South Africa, including one depicting a springbok caught in a giant pair of chopsticks.

"I can't believe we lost to Japan!" said Jim Bekker, a 26-year-old traveller looking the worse for wear. "But fair play to them, they deserved it."

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