South Africa’s Schalk Burger looks dejected after their Rugby World Cup match loss against Japan at Brighton Community Stadium on Saturday. ~ Reuter
IT is just as well that hara-kiri, the ritual suicide which is an honourable alternative to disgrace, is a Japanese tradition — or else the Springbok dressing-room in Brighton on Saturday night would have been littered with corpses.
Japan’s 34-32 World Cup victory was one of the most extraordinary in the history of Test rugby, a dream start for the Cherry Blossoms, the most horrible of nightmares for Heyneke Meyer, his players and their millions of supporters.
At the final whistle one team was shedding tears of happiness at the greatest achievement in their history; the vanquished were in abject despair as months of preparation, years of planning and massive hype lay buried in the green turf of the Brighton Community Stadium football field.
Not since Pearl Harbour in 1941 has a Japanese action been carried out with such swiftness, precision and audacity and proved so damaging to another country’s psyche.
Sir Clive Woodward, who coached England to their 2003 World Cup triumph, said the refusal of Japan to turn down a kick for an easy three points for a draw on the final whistle and instead chase the winning try, “was the biggest call in the history of the World Cup and resulted in the best game in World Cup history”.
The World Cup 2015 has exploded into life in Brighton and no rugby man of sober habits anywhere in the world would ever have imagined that the inappropriately-named Cherry Blossoms, the 40/1 outsiders, would be the catalyst and that they possessed the aggression, tenacity and courage to smother the mighty Springboks.
It was scarcely believable and you could see it in the remarkable scenes out on the grandstands where Cherry Blossom supporters in tears hugged neutral Poms, who had become instant honorary Japanese in support of the underdog, and out on the field where players on their knees wept uncontrollably.
The devastation of defeat was clear on the anguished faces of Heyneke Meyer and Jean de Villiers as they attempted to come to terms with the significance of the defeat, not only for the Springboks but for them as coach and captain.
Their preference would surely have been to return to the dressing-room, perhaps even to fall on their sword, rather than be dragged before the rowdy and gleeful international press who know a good story when they see one.
But they did grasp the nettle and neither made any excuses at the media briefing.
Meyer apologised to his country — again.
“I have to apologise to the nation,” he said. “It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility. It was very disappointing — we have let our country down but we can’t keep on saying that. It was a below par performance but all credit to the Japanese who played right to the end. Our performance was just not good enough. We knew they were going to be tough, but we gave away too many penalties, our discipline was just not good enough.”
A grim De Villiers echoed his words:
“We were beaten by a better team and as players we need to take responsibility. It was way below par and it is difficult to say exactly where it went wrong.
Japan captain Michael Leitch, a New Zealander of Fijian origin, said David had brought down Goliath. “We have been training for this day for the last four years. The Springboks really came out and tested us but we knew if we just chopped them we’d come off the winner. I’m not surprised. We came out here to do a job … I know the whole world is surprised, but in our camp we knew we could do it.”
Social media in South Africa erupted with Meyer under massive fire for his selection and game plan and there were calls for him to resign. And, in the angry Twitter response, the exceptional efforts of Japan on the night were largely ignored.
But, back in Brighton, there were some signs that some South African could lose in good grace. The London Guardian reported that Springbok supporters applauded the Japanese team on to their bus as they travelled back to their Warwick base. Others shook Japanese fans’ hands and formed a guard of honour as they boarded trains out of the city at the end of a quite extraordinary night