Rugby World Cup
Sometimes you can win when you lose
Canon Rugby in Focus: Jim Kayes reports from the madness in Tokyo as the Brave Blossoms' journey at the Rugby World Cup is blown apart.
It was nuts. Wonderfully, gloriously nuts, and from a rugby perspective it was all in vain.
South Africa won this World Cup quarter final against Japan 26-3, to advance to a semifinal against Wales whose coach, Warren Gatland admits they were lucky to get there.
He said the better team lost in Oita and he was right.
Wales should’ve lost to France. They would’ve, had France not lost lock Sebastien Vahaamahina to a red card that allowed Wales to claw their way back into the match.
Even then two French kicks that hit the posts would’ve done the trick, but it wasn’t to be for France as they lost 19-20.
Wales' victory was as scrappy and unconvincing as South Africa’s but in playoff rugby it doesn’t really matter - they got there.
They will play each other next weekend in Yokohama the day after the All Blacks face England in the Saturday semi final at the same venue.
On quarterfinal form, the winner of that first match, between New Zealand-England, will win the World Cup. Probably convincingly.
The All Blacks and England were as clinical and efficient in their wins against Ireland and Australia as Wales and South Africa were sloppy and disorganised.
To be fair to the Springboks they were a lot better than Wales and must be odds on favourites to get through to the final, but they were still far from convincing in beating this tournament’s Brave Blossoms.
Not that many in the crowd noticed or cared.
Having happily surrendered my media seat, high above the halfway line to sit with the fans at the end of the stadium that South Africa attacked in the first half, this test was a wonderful 80 minutes of noise and colour.
It wasn’t so much a rugby game as a rock concert, mixed with a house party and blended with an evangelical convention.
I was wedged into a heaving sea of red and white, with men and women from New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa happily decked out in Japanese head bandanas and many, though perhaps not the South Africans, wearing some of the 200,000 Japan jerseys sold during the World Cup.
It was a kaleidoscope of colour; a cacophony of fervent, almost religious passion and noise.
If Japan’s Kiwi coach Joseph had walked to the middle of the field he could have whipped the crowd into a speaking-in-tongues frenzy just by reciting the alphabet.
When skipper Michael Leitch touched the ball the crowded chanted his name. Heck they cheered him in the replays.
In the 18th minute when Japan pushed South Africa’s scrum backwards and got a penalty the crowd went crazy and stood in ovation.
There was silence for the kick, then an eruption of noise when it sailed through the posts.
Ever respectful, the Japanese roared in admiration when South Africa made breaks and screamed in delight when they finished in a mistake.
There was despair when referee Wayne Barnes decided Tendai Mtawarira’s spear tackle warranted only a yellow card, not a red one.
Strangely, given what’s happened already at this tournament, Barnes didn’t refer the matter to the TMO.
He also kept the video referee out of it when he ruled Springbok second five Damian de Allende had been tackled and not released the ball when he crossed for a “try” at the end of the first half.
Barnes repeated the dose early in the second half when he ruled out a try to Springbok openside flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit because of a forward pass. Oh the irony, All Blacks fans wailed.
Having trailed 3-5 at the break, the game slipped away from Japan in the second half, South Africa accumulating points almost by stealth so that with 17 minutes to play the two-time champions led 14-3.
It was a little bit strange in the crowd because the game became almost secondary to the atmosphere and sights.
There was a bloke in body paint imploring the crowd to “stand up for the Japanese” and the ever present chant of ole ole ole. It’s like they say at the Hong Kong sevens: if you get bored turn around and watch the rugby.
At Tokyo Stadium the crowd didn’t stop. If they weren’t singing they were chanting and if they weren’t chanting they were oohing and aahing about something on the field.
Few would’ve noticed if it was a good game of rugby. It wasn’t really. Fewer would have cared.
Most of the 48,831 were there to celebrate Japan’s contribution to the World Cup and when Faf de Klerk’s converted try gave South Africa a 21-3 lead, the crowd took it in their stride.
They had come hoping to see Japan win, as they had against South Africa four years ago, and that hope was tinged with optimism because Japan had come through the pool phase unbeaten, knocking aside Ireland and Scotland in the process.
But the fairy tale is over, the run slamming into a wall of South African green that may have been a bit patchy on attack but was resolute on defence.
It may be enough to get them past Wales but it won’t be anywhere near sufficient to beat England or the All Blacks.
Few in the crowd were worrying about that as they roared in approval when Japan bid them farewell after the final whistle.
Sometimes it is possible to win when you lose.