The greatest upsets in Rugby World Cup history

Japan stunned Ireland in Shizuoka four years after beating South Africa at a World Cup

They say lightning never strikes twice in the same place and in fairness to Japan, their two massive World Cup upsets have come on different continents against different teams, writes Paul Eddison.

And yet there is no question that they have produced the two biggest shocks the tournament has ever seen.

Four years after the Brighton Miracle when they stunned two-time World Cup winners and eventual semi-finalists South Africa, they were at it again on home soil in Shizuoka beating an Ireland team who entered the tournament as the world’s number one team.

That 19-12 success was the moment this tournament in Japan really sprung into life and brought back memories of some of the most surprising results in World Cup history.

Even for a sport like rugby where it is hard for the underdogs to upset the odds, it has been done before, and the rarity makes those exploits even more impressive.

With that in mind, here is a pick of the five greatest upsets in the 32-year history of the Rugby World Cup.

1. Japan v South Africa, Brighton, 2015

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As a performance, the win over Ireland was probably more impressive, but in terms of sheer shock factor, it is hard to imagine anything ever topping Japan’s win over South Africa in Brighton.

The Springboks were seen as one of the most likely teams to challenge favourites New Zealand for the title and were tipped to cruise through a group featuring the Brave Blossoms and Scotland.

Instead, they were involved in one of the sport’s greatest ever matches, decided by a last-minute try from Japan winger Karne Hesketh in the corner.

Under the leadership of Eddie Jones, Japan secured only their second-ever victory in the history of the competition, keeping in touch throughout thanks to the boot of Ayumu Goromaru, who became a national hero on the basis of this game.

Even so, they trailed by three heading into the final play of the game, but having worked the ball up to the Springbok line, they opened up the space to put Hesketh over in the corner in the 84th minute to create history.

2. Japan 19-12 Ireland, Shizuoka, 2019

Even after that success against South Africa, few gave Japan a chance of upsetting Ireland, who had come into the tournament as the world’s number one team.

The bookmakers made Ireland 21-point favourites and there was no reason to question that when they raced into a 12-3 lead thanks to two early tries.

From there though, Japan took control, usual captain Michael Leitch coming off the bench after half an hour and inspiring his team.

Where the South Africa game was on a knife edge throughout, this one was a more comprehensive victory with Japan never looking like losing after replacement Kenki Fukuoka gave them the lead just before the hour.

The winger had not even been due to feature in the game, but only came onto the bench when Will Tupou pulled out at the last minute.

In the No.23 jersey, like Hesketh four years previous, he also went over in the left corner, and in the final 20 minutes it was Japan who were able to see the game out.

Where in 2015 they failed to reach the quarter-finals, narrowly missing out to Scotland, this time around they look in pole position to get to the knockout stages for the first time.

3. Western Samoa 16-13 Wales, Cardiff, 1991

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The original World Cup upset came in Cardiff in 1991. The immortal line ‘Thank goodness we weren’t playing the whole of Samoa’ told the story as the Pacific Islanders stunned the World Cup hosts.

They were not household names then, but the likes of Pat Lam, Brian Lima and Apollo Perelini wrote their names into the history books in a sensational upset.

With future All Black great Frank Bunce leading the way in the midfield, Western Samoa gave the Welsh backs a torrid time with big hit after big hit.

To’o Vaega and Sila Vaifale got the tries for the Samoans, who clinched a spot in the quarter-finals at the expense of their hosts with the victory.

And they went on to repeat the trick, this time as Samoa, eight years later in Cardiff. In 1999 at the Millennium Stadium they won a thriller 38-31, albeit with both teams reaching the knockout stages on that occasion.

4. Tonga 19-14 France, Wellington, 2011

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Just like South Africa in 2015, France showed that an upset in the pool stages does not necessarily mean the tournament is over.

In 2011 they had already been thumped by New Zealand, but big wins over Canada and Japan left them needing just a point from their clash with Tonga to join the All Blacks in the quarter-finals.

They got it, but only just as Tonga produced a monumental shock. Suka Hufanga’s first-half try was an indication that this would be far from a walkover, and Kurt Morath’s boot kept France at arm’s length.

Qualification for the quarter-finals was never really on, with Tonga also needing four tries and scoring just one, but it took until the 80th minute for France to get a try of their own, Vincent Clerc crossing for the ultimate consolation.

Still, France made it through and went onto to come within two points of winning the whole thing, so maybe it isn’t all bad news for Ireland.

5. Fiji 38-34 Wales, Nantes, 2007

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When it comes to World Cups, Wales and Pacific Islands used to be a disastrous combination for the men in red.

That has not been the case in recent editions, but go back 12 years and it was Fiji who followed in the footsteps of Samoa by beating the Welsh and pipping them to a quarter-final place.

In glorious sunshine in Nantes, the Welsh played into the hands of their opponents, running it from everywhere in a thrilling encounter.

The problem was that Fiji were just that little bit better at the open, running rugby, and came out on the right side of a 38-34 barnstormer.

Vilimoni Delasau was the tormentor in chief on the wing, while Nicky Little outkicked Stephen Jones, finishing with 18 points.

In the end it was prop Graham Dewes who delivered the knockout blow three minutes from time as Wales crashed out.

The good news for Wales was that defeat signalled a change in approach and the arrival of Warren Gatland as coach. Three Grand Slams and World Cup semi-final later, it has clearly worked out.

Honourable mentions

There are a couple of other teams who deserve a mention on this list, starting with Uruguay, who stunned Fiji here in Japan.

While they have since had their thunder stolen by the host nation, their 30-27 win over a star-studded Fiji side ranks up there with the biggest shocks of all.

And finally, while it was a match between two tier one nations, France’s comeback success over the Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks in the 1999 semi-final also deserves inclusion.

That day Les Bleus came back from 24-10 down to stun New Zealand and played with such verve that even the Twickenham faithful were cheering them on.

With another fortnight of the pool stages to go, there is still plenty of time for more teams to force their way into this list. However, it will take something remarkable for anyone to knock Japan off top spot.

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