Brighton was treated to the match of the tournament so far as Japan pulled off perhaps the greatest shock in World Cup history. South Africa and Japan traded eight tries in a historic night for the Cherry Blossoms.
Japan rode several waves of South Africa pressure in the first five minutes and brilliantly repelled them with three turnovers.
Ayumu Goromaru kicked the first points of the game on seven minutes and could have doubled Japan’s lead two minutes later. It was the fullback’s first ever Rugby World Cup points, extending his lead as his nation’s record points scorer.
South Africa seemed surprised by the physicality of the Brave Blossoms, and it began to look as if it would be a frustrating afternoon for the Springboks.
A breakthrough finally came on 18 minutes when 30-year-old flanker Francois Louw drove over the line from a rolling maul from a five-metre lineout. It marked his sixth international try and his first in a World Cup in his fourth appearance.
Pat Lambie converted to give them a barely deserved four point lead in an entertaining encounter.
The Springboks were denied a second try five minutes later when the TMO correctly spotted that Jannie Du Plessis had swatted the ball toward his brother Bismarck, who’s spectacular swallow dive and stretch toward the ball resulted in a knock-on.
Japan thought that they had replied with a try of their own as they forced their way over the whitewash, but the TMO indicated that they were just short of the line.
The Cherry Blossoms booted the resulting penalty straight into touch and drove on once more from the lineout and finally got their just reward. Captain Michael Leitch stretched the ball over the line to give his side a one point lead.
Goromaru kicked the extras and Japan deservedly had a three-point lead.
It lasted all of one minute as South Africa quickly worked their way up the other end with a penalty into touch of their own. In an almost carbon copy of the first two tries, South Africa registered a further five points through Bismarck Du Plessis.
Lambie was unable to add the extras and another courageous turnover from Japan as the clock went dead kept it to a tight two point game heading into half-time.
At the restart, Japan struck first through the boot of Goromaru from a penalty for offside to sneak them ahead by one.
Once again though, the lead barely lasted at all as South African lock Lodewyk De Jager burst away to run clean to the line and dive between the posts. Lambie made it a seven pointer, and the game started to really heat up.
Japan responded immediately as the game continued to ebb and flow beautifully, and Goromaru displayed his class once again to reduce the arrears to three from the tee, before leveling the match at 19-19 on 53 minutes.
The kickers continued to trade blows throughout the second half until giant hooker Adriann Straus followed in De Jager’s footsteps with a charging burst and measured side step to send him clear through for the touch down.
Handre Pollard continued where Lambie left off from the spot to make it 29-22 to the Springboks with 15 minutes to play.
Just when it looked as if they would finally close the game out, Goromaru once again leveled the match with a superb converted try from a remarkable team effort.
Pollard edged the Springboks three clear once again and time was running out for the men in red and white. A tremendous team effort forced them down the other end and with 30 seconds to go, Japan refused a kick at the posts for a draw and opted for a scrum.
After several reset scrums, with the clock deep into the red, late substitute Karne Hesketh scored one of the most incredible tries in the history of rugby.
The Brave Blossoms lived up to their name by outplaying a stronger, heavier pack with a world class attacking display to top Pool B with a 34-32 win.
South Africa: Zane Kirchner; Bryan Habana, Jesse Kriel, Jean de Villiers, Lwazi Mvovo (JP Pietersen 70), Pat Lambie (Handre Pollard 58), Ruan Pienaar (Fourie du Preez 58), Schalk Burger, Pieter-Steph du Toit (Siya Kolisi 57), Francois Louw, Victor Matfield, Lood de Jager (Eben Etzebeth 68) , Jannie du Plessis (Coenie Oosthuizen 54), Bismarck du Plessis (Adriann Strauss 54) , Tendai Mtawarira (Trevor Nyakane 53)
Japan: Ayumu Goromaru; Akihito Yamada (Karne Hesketh 79), Male Sau, Harumichi Tatekawa, Kotaro Matsushima, Kosei Ono (Tamura 73), Fumiaki Tanaka (Atsushi Hiwasa 67), Hendrik Tui (Amanaki Mafi 45), Michael Broadhurst, Michael Leitch, Hitoshi Ono (Shinya Makabe 54), Luke Thompson, Kensuke Hatakeyama (Hiroshi Yamashita 54), Shota Horie (Takeshi Kizu 70), Masataka Mikami (Keita Inagaki 58).
Referee: Jerome Garces