Rugby World Cup: Remembering the shock of the century

When fans think of Japanese rugby, they think of the 34-32 win against South Africa. But there's much more to the tale, starting with a rout in 1995.

Posted: Feb 15, 2019 7:00 AM
Updated: Feb 15, 2019 7:00 AM

With time almost up on the clock, Japan rolled the dice on England's south coast.

A successful kick at goal could have secured a draw against two-time world champions South Africa -- a remarkable result for a team of Japan's stature. Coach Eddie Jones bayed from the sidelines for his team to take the kick, but captain Michael Leitch thought otherwise.

Leitch wanted a try -- five points that would thrust Japan into the history books with the greatest upset in Rugby World Cup history.

"I'd rather go down challenging South Africa than kicking the goal, missing, and regretting it for the rest of my life," Leitch tells CNN.

They say fortune favors the brave, and the aptly-named Brave Blossoms -- who showed courage and nerve by the bucket-load on that day in 2015 -- were richly rewarded.

When Karne Hesketh slid over after multiple energy-sapping phases of play to give his side a famous 34-32 victory, pandemonium ensued inside Brighton's Amex Stadium as Japan celebrated only its second victory at a Rugby World Cup.

Visit CNN.com/Sport for more news, features and video

This was the nation's finest hour on a rugby pitch, a thrilling spectacle and a giant-slaying for the ages. Captain Leitch can hardly forget the moments leading to that final try.

"The general feeling within the team was let's go for it," says the 30-year-old. "The message did come from upstairs saying kick the goal but the guys around were saying, 'Let's go for the scrum.'

"It was probably one of my better decisions," he smiles.

READ: 'Supreme' England targets in-form Wales in the Six Nations

View from the stands

The sight of Daisuke Komura, draped in a red-spotted poncho and shedding tears of joy at the final whistle of that game, was beamed on TV screens around the world.

A lifelong Japanese rugby fan, he could scarcely have dreamed his travels to the UK for the World Cup would arrive at this point.

"I was as happy as when my first son was born," Komura tells CNN. "I can't describe how I felt. It was an experience that I would never ever get again. I was truly moved."

Like the thousands in the stadium, Komura urged his side to play for the try in the closing minutes. Sitting near him was now England boss Jones, who looked on as the players continued to defy his instructions. Come the final play, Jones couldn't watch.

"Eddie was sitting right behind me and left in anger as he wanted to see a shot at goal," says Komura. "I guess he didn't see the deciding moment, but when I turned back I saw Eddie coming out again with a big smile. We shook hands. His face was full of surprise and shock -- it was a funny moment."

Jones has been credited with masterminding the fast-paced game plan that saw a physically inferior Japanese side run South Africa ragged. As the match wore on it worked a charm, the Brave Blossoms enjoying the lion share of possession and territory in the second period.

READ: England gives France Les Bleus with Six Nations thumping

The victory, as Leitch explains, was no fluke: "We named our training 'Beat the Boks' and that's how we trained.

"It felt like a training run. That's no disrespect to South Africa, but we analyzed the game to the point where we knew each individual's characteristics. That gave us the advantage."

'The worst game ever'

For South Africa, who rallied to reach the semifinals in 2015, that final Hekseth try was a sucker punch to the torso. This defeat wouldn't wash over after a few days; it was a humiliating result for a nation that holds its rugby team on a pedestal.

Siya Kolisi, the current Springbok captain who came on as a substitute in Brighton, remembers it all too vividly.

"I didn't get to play a lot," Kolisi, who was two years into his international career at the time, recently told CNN World Rugby. "I came on as a sub and then they took me off again because I got a yellow card. I was sitting on the side when the last try happened and it was depressing to see.

"You could see it coming from a mile away, as soon as they were passing the ball around. It's the worst game I've actually played in.

"We're a different team now, but obviously I don't want something like that to happen again."

READ: Ireland battles to victory over Scotland

World Cup 2019

Japan ended the 2015 World Cup with victories over USA and Samoa, but a defeat to Scotland meant the Brave Blossoms failed to reach the knockout stages for what would have been the first time.

There's no doubt, though, that the South Africa game changed Japanese rugby forever.

"In the past, when the team came up against a massive opponent like that the guys would have said, 'We're going to lose anyway so why give 100 percent?' says Leitch. "My fondest memory of that game was the guys going at 100 percent the whole 80 minutes."

There are eight months until Japan hosts the Rugby World Cup -- the first ever Asian nation to do so. The host nation's pool games have already sold out, where Scotland and world No. 2 Ireland will be the Brave Blossoms' biggest obstacles against reaching the knockout stages.

"I think Japan's chances of getting out of the pool stages this time round are very high, but it won't be easy ... The team is very focused and our main goal is not to get out the pool stages, it's to keep on winning."

Who knows? Maybe the Miracle of Brighton will be recast as the Shock of Shizuoka when Ireland comes to town.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 155597

Reported Deaths: 2208
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah31877528
Washington21211212
Marion18468285
Clackamas13380175
Lane10258126
Jackson8395112
Umatilla765982
Deschutes595259
Yamhill378364
Linn359056
Malheur335158
Polk306442
Klamath279155
Douglas247454
Benton234416
Josephine234050
Jefferson195828
Coos149119
Union128419
Columbia126521
Wasco122126
Lincoln113220
Hood River106929
Morrow104914
Clatsop7756
Crook77518
Baker6567
Curry4296
Tillamook4142
Lake3766
Harney2736
Grant2231
Wallowa1424
Gilliam531
Sherman530
Wheeler221
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 3566914

Reported Deaths: 52158
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles119192321435
Riverside2894503767
San Bernardino2866072874
Orange2612203917
San Diego2600913284
Santa Clara1106211777
Kern102627827
Fresno953931443
Sacramento932811472
Alameda806681242
Ventura77623844
San Joaquin665691101
Contra Costa62248681
Stanislaus56132946
Tulare47784758
Monterey42138328
San Mateo38998515
San Francisco34260412
Santa Barbara31805411
Solano30024164
Merced28915397
Sonoma28141298
Imperial26903591
Kings21955218
Placer19763232
San Luis Obispo19612227
Madera15467209
Santa Cruz14588183
Marin13136197
Yolo12834185
Shasta10985174
Butte10962160
El Dorado9095100
Napa903869
Sutter884597
San Benito576759
Yuba573337
Lassen560119
Tehama508152
Nevada396074
Tuolumne394659
Mendocino379643
Amador346341
Humboldt318033
Lake315641
Glenn222523
Colusa212813
Calaveras190547
Siskiyou174014
Inyo128737
Mono12114
Del Norte9875
Plumas6536
Modoc4524
Mariposa3957
Trinity3675
Sierra990
Alpine810
Unassigned00
Medford
Clear
60° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 60°
Brookings
Partly Cloudy
52° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 52°
Medford
Clear
60° wxIcon
Hi: 42° Lo: 18°
Feels Like: 60°
Medford
Partly Cloudy
60° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 60°
Klamath Falls
Clear
53° wxIcon
Hi: 52° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 53°
Very mild start to March
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events