By Martin Rhys
I’m old enough to remember Wales thumping up cricket scores against Japan during the 1970s. Phil Bennett the diminutive Llanelli outside-half would waltz through the Japanese defence at will, thrilled to be playing against somebody his own size for the first time since he was eight.
He wouldn’t have been so thrilled this week. How times have changed. Emphatically no longer the whipping boys of world rugby, Japan turned the tables good and proper on a rugby super-power, the mighty Springboks.
And it wasn’t a case of putting up a good show as gallant losers either. They actually beat the two times world champions, matching them for power and speed and whacking them for spirit and pace.
So much about the victory was superlative that it’s difficult to know where to start.
Probably at the end.
Three points behind with the clock going into red. The referee blows for a penalty to Japan. The penalty is easily kickable, particularly for a man who has barely missed a pot at goal all afternoon. Kick this penalty and they draw with the world champions. What a result!
They kick to touch…
Now come on! Who amongst you – after 80 bone-shuddering, lung-vacuuming, soul-wrenching minutes – would not have taken the chance of a draw against South Africa? And a much more than honourable draw, a draw which would have made headlines across the rugby world as the mighty Boks were humbled. I’d have taken the three points. Be honest, so would you.
They were after bigger headlines, headlines which would turn the Boks’ humility into humiliation. They went for touch, won the lineout, and for over four interminably red minutes spread and twisted the South African defence until the hint of a space was enough for Hesketh (not the most obviously Japanese of names but who cares!) to make the line.
Consider for a moment the amount of belief in yourself and your team that went into that decision to go for a win. I can’t think of many nations in that David v Goliath position who would have done the same. Yet it was simply the emotional and indeed logical culmination of the belief and spirit which they had shown throughout the match. Close-ups of Japanese forwards during a lineout were nothing short of awe-inspiring and even scary. They would permit nothing to be an obstacle to completing the goal they had come to achieve. That goal defined them. For 85 minutes that’s all their lives were about. It was what they had to do.
(A short diversion here – read last year’s Booker Prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. It will repay you mightily and add to the insight into the Japanese psyche that you glimpsed in this match.)
As for the World Cup, it couldn’t have had a better result at a more perfect stage of the competition. All the preliminary matches with the no-hopers acting as cannon-fodder for the big boys, the matches nobody is remotely interested in watching? Well, Japan changed all that!