Trying to write about what happened at the Brighton Community Stadium on the first Saturday of the Rugby World Cup is tricky. For the uninitiated, our sport finds it difficult to serve up upsets. The scoring processes are multiple and therefore it is much harder to defend for the whole match and then snatch a win. We’ve had upsets in the World Cup before (Wales v Western Samoa is one that somehow comes to mind) but it was different in Brighton. Maybe it always is. Difficult, different and absolutely bloody lovely.
South Africa weren’t at their best. Their kicking game misfired, as did their experienced pack, and they conceded penalties. But that sort of appraisal makes you think this was a loss rather than a win. And it wasn’t. Japan grabbed this victory with both hands. Grabbed it, passed it and dived in the corner. There were grown men in tears. Not because they’d won, but because of the way they’d won.
And oh my goodness did we need it. Rugby had turned up to its own celebration a little out of shape on Friday night. Despite plenty of warning and a fair amount of warm up, “running and passing”, a party piece that is a guaranteed favourite, decided to make way for the understandably unpopular process of TMO referrals. Millions of us tuned in to see some truly fine rugby athletes stand and stare at a big screen. It was like watching a really good juggler try and sing.
Following a completely passable opening ceremony that, despite creaking in a few places, certainly got us roused and in the mood, rugby staggered centre stage in the shape of the hosts versus Fiji. What happened was small bursts of action and a rather large amount of waiting around and wondering what was going on. Jaco Peyper, the referee for the game, decided to abdicate responsibility and make maximum use of the television match official. He mustered an incredible twenty minutes of slo-motion replays that showed people falling towards the floor. Back and forth we ‘rocked and rolled’. We all knew the answer and yet there we sat, in rugby limbo, trying to calculate that if every game was going to be like this, would we be done by Christmas?
But down in Brighton, all that was forgotten. As the game progressed, things started to click into place. It was punch and counter punch with the Japanese briefly in front early on. The Springboks led at half time and yet the way the Cherry Blossoms were playing, you thought they’d get close. Japan scored a try from a maul in the first period but it was the most wonderful of backs moves that lit up the second half. They eased through the South African back line with a set play the All Blacks would have been pleased with. Game on. The ‘Boks botched try scoring chances, losing their compusure in the face of such oriental spirit, and yet still edged three clear; the clock moved through 75 minutes. A penalty was awarded within kickable range that would have earned the Cherry and Whites a gallant draw. But Japan nudged it into the corner and we all moved to the edge of our collective sofa. They were going to run it. They were going to gamble and win.
Why was this such a good victory? Belief. Peyper had none the night before and it was uninspiring. Japan had it in bucket loads in Brighton and it was infectious. Rugby is a sport built on belief. The belief that I can run past you. The belief that unity can outshine individualism. The belief that fifteen differently shaped men can come together to be a sum of their parts. We, as fans of all the rugby states, need belief. Belief that this isn’t going to follow a script to which we all know the ending. That despite injuries, mishaps or players not being picked, our boys can get it right on the night and notch up a famous win. That’s what Japan did. They rewarded belief. “We can do this,” they said, and they did. Is there a better motif for this sporting stage? I doubt it. The land of the rising sun provided us with a timely reminder. We have to believe this day can be ours.
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.