Why we should have known Japan would beat South Africa

The first instinct of many sports afficionados, after watching Japan's epic 34-32 win over South Africa, was to describe this as not only rugby's greatest ever upset, but the greatest in any sport. Perhaps it was; the giants of South Africa humbled by Japan, a nation without a World Cup win for 24 years in a sport which is at the very soul of the Afrikaaner.

But, with the benefit of hindsight, if we dig a little deeper, we can see that this upset was on the cards.

Rugby Immigration v Rugby Emigration

The professional era has produced some unintended consequences. It has not just been a mechanism for dedicated rugby playes to earn an honest crust in pursuit of their sport. Via the imbalances of funding in the various domestic leagues around the world, we have seen a story of migration play out on rugby's playing fields. Hence we see Samoans and Tongans brought up as children in the UK, as result of their fathers securing professional contracts there in the mid 1990s, now breaking through into UK national teams. More pertinently in this match, we have seen top South African players leave thier homeland to ply their trade in France, Ireland and England, while Japan has imported talent mainly from the southern hemisphere. This helps to build a rugby culture in emerging domestic leagues.

Furthermore many of this imported talent has not played international rugby for their country of birth, and so Japan has been able to include 6 New Zealanders and 1 Tongan in the match day squad against South Africa, while Sprinboks picked 6 players contracted abroad including Fourie De Preez of Suntory Sungoliath in the Japanese league. You wonder about unity and sense of purpose in these circumstances.


Selections for South Africa's World Cup squad were based not just upon performances in the Rugby Championship, but with at least one eye on the thorny issue of quotas based on race. Players run the risk of being labelled as a quota (or "transformation") selection rather than being judged independently on ability and performances. In 2015 the debate escalated to a new level. The Agency for New Agenda party, formerly "South Africa First" and its president Edward Mahlomola Mokhoanatse, went to the North Gauteng High Court, seeking an order to compel the SARU, sports department officials and players to surrender their passports so they could not travel to the World Cup, as a protest against the under representation of non-whites in the squad.

Although the action failed, this is not how you want to prepare for a tournament. Rather than worrying about this sort of thing, the Japan selectors were happy to choose as many "Samurai Kiwis" as were qualified for Japan on residency.

Expert Coaching v Coaching by Numbers

In the build-up to the Rugby World Cup, South Africa lost all 3 games in the Rugby Championship for the first time. It should not have happened. The match against Australia stands out, as South Africa eased into a very comfortable lead early in the second half. One can only assume that the substitution alarm on coach Heyneke Meyer's watch went off on 50 minutes and he changed his entire front row, taking off all 3 of arguably the most experienced and powerful front row in world rugby, who had controlled the set pieces. They went on to lose control upfront and the match.

Exactly the same thing happened between 50 and 60 minutes in the Japan match on Saturday. There seemed no need to make the changes so early and the momentum was ceded.

In contrast Eddie Jones has built his coaching team on expertise. He himself was a special advisor to the World Cup winning South Africa team in 2007 and so knows their methods inside out. And who better than to coach the Japan forwards than former England captain, Steve Borthwick, a natural leader with over 50 caps? It is professional thinking for the professional era.

Ono v Oh No!

Hitoshi Ono, a 37 year old lock, and Kosei Ono, a 27 year old fly-half both started the game for Japan on Saturday. If you listen again to the match commentary, you will hear their names frequently shouted; in a South African accent. Oh no!