SUNDAY TIMES - Bok heads to roll after shock loss to Japan
Sunday Times News By ARCHIE HENDERSON, 2015-09-20 00:06:00.0

Bok heads to roll after shock loss to Japan

South Africa look dejected after the match against Japan.
Image: Eddie Keogh REUTERS

The Springboks were last night hit by a Japanese rugby tsunami that has rocked the game here to its very foundations.

Last night's shock 34-32 defeat of the double world champions by Japan will have massive repercussions for South African rugby. Among these are:

  • The future of coach Heyneke Meyer is now in serious doubt;
  • The playing days of the team's older players - including captain Jean de Villiers and South Africa's most capped player, Victor Matfield - will be over once the World Cup ends for the Boks;
  • There will be calls for a foreign coach to take over Meyer's job; and
  • The pressure on the South African Rugby Union to transform the Springbok team will grow from many quarters.

The extent of the Boks' defeat - in their opening match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup - was huge.

It was also a sporting upset that ranks as one of the biggest in world sport.

As upsets go, this one ranks along with undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson being knocked out for the first time in his career by Buster Douglas or - more recently - Italian tennis player Roberta Vinci's victory over Serena Williams at the US Open this month.

It was a victory for a team ranked 14th in the world over one ranked at No3. Before last night's match, the odds on the Boks to win the World Cup were 5/1, while those on Japan were 1500/1. And before this match, Japan had won only one of their previous 24 World Cup games.

South Africa's Victor Matfield in action with Japan's Kosei Onopic Image: REUTERS Stefan Wermuth

Now the calls for Meyer's dismissal are expected to emerge from many quarters. Already, the coach has been criticised for conservative, one-dimensional tactics and an apparent unwillingness to look beyond a core of older - and often injured - players. Even his promise of a 30% black representation among the Springbok team fell short by 3%.

His selection of yesterday's team to play Japan mystified many pundits. He left out two Springboks who are currently on top form - fullback Willie le Roux and centre Damian de Allende.

They were dropped for Zane Kirchner and captain De Villiers. Kirchner was surprisingly brought back this year by Meyer, having been out of the Bok team for just over a year. De Villiers has been struggling with injuries, including a broken jaw.

Last night Meyer apologised, calling the result "unacceptable".

"Our discipline was just not good enough. You can't give away soft penalties. There are no easy games in this competition," he said.

Springbok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who plays club rugby in Japan, said the result was the low point of his career but was not surprised by Japan's performance.

"I've been playing there for four years, so I knew what was coming. I tried to let the guys know during the week that they are a proper nation.

"They were probably just better prepared than us, they had a lot of focus areas where they targeted us. They just outsmarted us."

Springbok captain Jean de Villiers said the character of the team would now be tested.

"It is not doom and gloom but a massive dent to us," he said.

For Meyer to keep even a tenuous hold on his job, the Boks would need to win the World Cup next month - a task that now looks increasingly unlikely.

Japan's Karne Hesketh scores Japan's third try against South Africa. Image: REUTERS Eddie Keogh

The implications for the Boks are now immense. If they lose to Samoa on Saturday they could be all but out of the tournament before it has even got into its stride.

To qualify for the quarter-finals, the Boks will need to beat Samoa and Scotland a week later. Both teams suddenly loom as mountains for the Boks after yesterday's defeat and both will draw confidence from the Springboks' poor performance against Japan. Even a victory over the US, the fifth team in the group, is no longer the given it once was.

Last night's outcome was the second shock defeat suffered this year. In August a strangely listless team lost at home to Argentina at Durban's King's Park.

The Springboks' horror performance, however, should not detract from an outstanding game by Japan, who more than lived up to their nickname, the Brave Blossoms.

"We've worked for this for the last four years," said Japan's captain Michael Leitch. "The Springboks really came out and tested us but we knew if we just chopped them and kicked it on we'd come off the winner."

And coach Eddie Jones - who arrives in South Africa next year to become coach of the Stormers - said before the match: "We have not come here to be brave, but to win."

Nevertheless, François Pienaar, who led the Boks to their World Cup triumph in 1995, called Japan "brave".

"Throughout the game, the Japanese team took the South Africans on, man on man," he said.

Japan celebrate victory after the match Image: REUTERS Eddie Keogh

"We thought the dam would break at the 65-minute mark but the Japan team kept on coming and the crowd was right behind them. They came up with an amazing try. It had Eddie Jones's paw prints all over it. He instils belief in everyone who plays for him. Incredible result, they should be immensely proud," said former Australian scrumhalf George Gregan, who captained Australia when Jones was the coach.

South Africa's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, who once derided Bafana Bafana for losing, tweeted: "Soldiers never throw away and give in - they pick up and soldier on - nation still fully behind @Springboks."

Praise for Japan was effusive. Robert Kitson, writing on the Guardian website last night said: "The Brave Blossoms were more than gallant; from start to finish they were utterly sensational."

Rob Bagchi of the Daily Telegraph said: "The sheer fearless, last-gasp nature of [Japan's victory] will go down in sporting history and become synonymous with heroism in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming odds. The Brave Blossoms simply refused to lose and the theatre they served up will live long in the memory."

Japan's victory was built on ferocious tackling that kept them within two points of the Springboks at halftime after driving mauls had brought tries for South Africa's François Louw and Bismarck du Plessis, with Leitch touching down for Japan.

Japan then snatched victory in the last minute of the game with a stunning try through winger Kame Hesketh in the left-hand corner.

Japan players and fans shed tears of joy at the end of a thrilling encounter that ebbed and flowed, but victory was fully deserved after a tenacious performance by the underdogs at the Brighton Community Stadium.

South Africa had sounded a note of caution ahead of the game, but few, if any, would have predicted defeat at the hands of an opponent that had previously won only once in 24 World Cup outings.

The Boks outscored Japan four tries to three, but the kicking of Japan's fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who also scored a try for a personal 24-point tally, kept his team in the contest to set up a remarkable last eight minutes of pressure under which the Boks finally buckled.

Springbok fans, who appeared to make up most of the crowd judging by a sea of green jerseys, were seen to leave the stadium looking downcast. From early yesterday morning hordes of Bok fans had poured into the seaside town.