It was only the second win in 25 World Cup matches for the Asian nation, but they fully deserved to take the spoils from Saturday’s pulsating Pool B encounter at the Brighton Community Stadium.
Japan’s bravery and tenacity was in evidence throughout the contest, but no more so than in the dying stages. Eschewing the chance to kick a penalty that would have tied the scores, Japan went in for the kill in a dramatic late onslaught that ultimately carved the opening for Hesketh to dive over in the corner.
“We always thought we could beat them,” Japan coach Eddie Jones said. “It’s fantastic for the team, for Japanese rugby. We worked hard for this … It’s got to go down as one of the greatest games in World Cup history.”
Japan players and fans shed tears of joy at the end of a thrilling encounter that ebbed and flowed throughout, though few, if any, would have predicted defeat for the 1995 and 2007 champions.
South Africa outscored Japan four tries to three, but the kicking of fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who also scored a try for a personal 24-point tally, kept Japan in the contest to set up that remarkable final eight minutes of pressure, under which the Boks finally buckled.
Ferocious tackling from Japan kept them within two points of the Springboks at halftime after driving mauls brought tries for South Africa’s Francois Louw and Bismarck du Plessis, with Micahel Leitch touching down for Japan.
The reliable boot of Goromaru nudged Japan in front early in the second half, but that was quickly cancelled out by a try from South African lock Lood De Jager.
Both sides exchanged a series of penalties before the Springboks snatched another try when replacement Adriaan Strauss burst through the defence. But then Japan found space out wide, sending Goromaru in at the corner; his conversion levelling the scores.
Another South Africa penalty looked like breaking Japanese hearts, only for Hesketh to grab his place in rugby history.
“It was a below-par performance and not good enough by our standards,” Springbok captain Jean de Villiers said.
Coach Heyneke Meyer was equally scathing and was moved to apologise to his country for what he described as an “unacceptable” performance.
“I have to apologise to the nation,” he told reporters. “It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility.”
by “I must take responsibility. We represent a proud nation and we let them down,” added coach Heyneke Meyer.
(Additional reporting by John Geddie; Editing by David Goodman)