Moulded by former Australia coach Eddie Jones into a side that matched flair and industry with ferocious tackling, Japan made all those attributes count in spectacular fashion with a last-gasp victory in their Pool B opener in Brighton.
A day after England had kicked off the six-week showpiece by quelling a fired-up Fiji at Twickenham, there were also victories for Ireland, France and Georgia.
But the day belonged to Japan, a country that will host the 2019 edition but had only one World Cup win, in 1991, to their name until now.
Nicknamed the Brave Blossoms, the men in red and white shirts finally provided a moment worthy of the moniker when they refused to settle for a probable draw when they were awarded a kickable penalty in the dying seconds of the game.
Sensing, as they had throughout that the ailing Springboks were there for the taking, Japan went for glory and after a reset scrum against a team down to 14 men and barely believing their predicament, they spread the ball wide for New Zealand-born wing Karne Hesketh to dive over in the corner.
“It’s quite incredible. We thought we could compete, but to beat South Africa is a fantastic achievement for the team and it’s a great day for Japanese rugby,” said Jones, who acted as a consultant for South Africa when they lifted the trophy in 2007.
Fullback Ayumu Goromaru scored one of Japan’s three tries and 19 points from his boot kept his side in touch despite four tries from South Africa.
For South Africa, steeped in rugby heritage and world champions in 1995 and 2007, it was a bitter blow and coach Heyneke Meyer could only apologise to the nation for his side’s “unacceptable” performance.
“It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility,” he lamented.
South Africa have a week to regroup before facing Samoa in Birmingham next Saturday. Japan have less time to rest, though the adrenaline will be flowing again as they aim to reproduce their heroics against Scotland on Wednesday.
Six Nations champions Ireland, fancied by many to go beyond the quarter-finals for the first time, hit the ground running in Cardiff as they brushed aside Canada 50-7 in an impressive start to their Pool D campaign.
The slick Irish were full of attacking endeavour in scoring seven tries. Flyhalf Johnny Sexton quickly established control, scored the pick of the tries and pulled the green machine’s strings until he was replaced in the second half.
It was the first World Cup match in which both captains were sin-binned, with Canada’s Jamie Cudmore receiving his sixth international yellow card — one shy of the world record of seven by Italy’s Marco Bortolami.
France made light work of an indisciplined Italy to begin their campaign with a 32-10 Pool D victory at Twickenham.
The 2011 semi-finalists, who have hardly set the world alight under coach Philippe Saint-Andre, showed they still remain a threat, with second-half tries from prop Rabah Slimani and replacement forward Nicolas Mas.
Georgian scrumhalf Vasil Lobzhanidze, 18, became the youngest player in Rugby World Cup history when he ran out against Tonga, but it was captain Mamuka Gorgodze, nicknamed Gorgodzilla, who inspired his side to a surprise 17-10 Pool C win in Gloucester.
Ranked 16th in the world, five places below their opponents, the Georgians led 17-3 with tries from number eight Gorgodze and flanker Giorgi Tkhilaishvili before withstanding a Tongan fightback.
“This was the best victory in our history,” Gorgodze said of Georgia’s third Rugby World Cup win, after one in 2007 and another four years ago.
Holders New Zealand begin their title defence on Sunday, when they take on Argentina in Pool C at Wembley (1545 GMT). Wales face Uruguay in Cardiff (1330) and Samoa play the United States in Brighton (1100).
(Editing by David Goodman)