The story of the Rugby World Cup, to date, has without doubt been the monumental upset of South Africa by the Japanese in the first round of matches. Upsets are not a particularly unusual occurrence come World Cup time, but never in the history of the tournament has there been an upset of this magnitude, where there has been such a huge perceived gulf between the two teams.
So how did it happen? Prior to the match, this was a result that absolutely no-one gave any serious credence to, based on form, history, and the relative quality of both squads. Japan's subsequent loss against Scotland, and South Africa's thumping of Samoa, provides further illustration of what a strange result this was for the rugby world.
A lot of reports have focussed on Japan's passion, courage, and determination, but this hardly explains why they performed so well. Doubtless they were passionate and courageous back in 1995, when they lost to the All Blacks 145-17, with Marc Ellis scoring a World Cup record six tries.
Three key factors
Looking back at the match, it was more than courage that enabled Japan to overcome one of the premier teams in world rugby. Unlike most other second-tier nations, Japan were able to match the Springboks in three key areas of the game, which contributed hugely to their eventual victory. These areas include the set-piece, their backline, and overall fitness.
One of the foundation stones of a successful modern rugby team, is its ability to perform at the set-piece â scrums and line-outs. A team with a competitive set-piece is able to set a stable attacking platform, and is much more capable of gaining and retaining possession. While they were physically outmatched by the Boks, the Japanese forward pack were both smart and technically proficient, negating South Africa's size advantage and presenting a solid platform for their backs to operate from.
Secondly, it was the ability of Japan's backline to score tries and break South Africa's defensive line that proved to be a key component in their victory. Often upsets in rugby occur in low-scoring, defence-oriented matches. As long as they can present a strong defensive front, less skilled teams can feed off defensive errors or rely on their forwards to eke out a try or two.
This scenario has already been played out in the world cup so far, with Georgia beating Tonga 17-10 in Gloucester, stifling Tonga's attacking game with an incredible defensive effort.
Tonga are not in the same class as South Africa though. Indeed, against Japan it was not South Africa's inability to score tries that was their downfall â they scored four.
Usually, second-tier nations are just not able to keep pace with this rate of scoring. However, due to the skill of their backline, Japan were able to match the Boks every step of the way. Indeed, Ayumu Goramaru's second half try was as good of a backline move as you're likely to see by any team.
This leads to the third key to Japan's victory â their fitness. Because of the physically demanding nature of the game, it is often left until the last quarter of a match until it is decided.
In the recent match between Argentina and Georgia, the game was evenly poised at 14-9 after about fifty minutes. As the Georgians tired, Argentina capitalised and the match ended at 54-9. Similarly Japan, backing up to play Scotland just four days after their previous game, were not able to keep pace with their opponents for the full 80 minutes and lost 45-10.
However, against South Africa, the Japanese showed excellent fitness and conditioning, and had enough energy to chase the game and win in the final minute of the match.
The gap is closing
While Japan's victory over the Springboks was an incredible achievement, it does not erase the fact that there is still a gap between the first and second tier of international rugby.
There may be an upset or two still to come at the Rugby World Cup, but they will become increasingly less likely, as the fitness and squad depth of the second-tier nations is tested as the tournament progresses.
However, what Japan have shown, is that the gap between these nations is closing. While the progress is slow, it is definitely happening.
With good coaching, player development, and access to high-level competitions, Japan and the rest of the developing rugby world will only continue to improve.
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History and is currently working as a ministry intern at Cornerstone Church.
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html