JAPAN pulled off the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history with a stunning 34-32 win over South Africa at the Amex Stadium in Brighton.
Karne Hesketh’s 84th-minute try capped a mesmerising performance from a side usually playing the role of group stage cannon fodder as they somehow beat the two-time champions.
The underdogs, who have three players in their squad who were not even born when Japan last won a World Cup match in 1991, instead created a shock which will rank among the most remarkable in rugby - and indeed sporting - history.
They led 10-7 midway through the first half thanks to a try from their New Zealand-born captain Michael Leitch, trailed by only two at half-time and promptly took a 13-12 lead after the break.
A try from full-back Ayumu Goromaru, as well as his nerveless kicking, drew them level at 29-29 with just 10 minutes to play, with the rattled South Africans looking nothing like a team among the favourites to win a third world title.
When Handre Pollard kicked a penalty with five minutes remaining it appeared South Africa would at least avoid a humiliating defeat.
But relentless pressure from the brave Japanese paid off when Hesketh scored in the corner to send the crowd wild.
Having soaked up seven minutes of South African pressure, the minnows set the tone for a gripping afternoon when they suddenly broke through and had the audacity to score first.
Goromaru led the charge through the midfield and was eventually stopped in his tracks by opposite number Zane Kirchner.
The Japanese were awarded a penalty for their troubles and Goromaru confidently knocked it over.
Japan’s swift, inventive movement was giving South Africa cause for concern already but nevertheless, with 17 minutes gone, they got off the mark, their forwards driving relentlessly before tumbling over the line with flanker Francois Louw touching down.
That should have settled any early-tournament nerves for the Springboks, but rather than opening the floodgates, Japan hit back with a try of their own.
A lengthy TMO referral decided not to award a try to Hendrik Tui after a 13-man maul drove him over but, undaunted, Japan merely won the line-out and drove forward again, this time Leitch touching down.
Their unlikely lead did not last long, however, with hooker Bismarck Du Plessis the man diving over to give South Africa a narrow advantage at half-time.
That lead lasted just three minutes into the second half, Goromaru slotting over another penalty to put Japan ahead by one.
However, that jolted South Africa into action and straight from the restart the giant Lood De Jager broke through a huge gap to dive in under the posts.
Yet even then the respite did not last, Goromaru rifling over three penalties to level the scores again with 54 minutes played.
Springbok replacement Adriaan Strauss finished off a rare well-worked move to give them the lead but, yet again, Japan were not finished.
Kotaro Matsushima worked himself space and sliced the South African defence open as he found that man Goromaru in support and, unthinkably, the scores were level with just 10 minutes to play.
Pollard’s penalty gave South Africa a tiny piece of breathing space but Japan, roared on by the crowd, inched ever closer to the whitewash.
Coenie Oosthuizen was yellow-carded as South Africa’s rearguard creaked under the severe pressure and eventually a pile of red and white shirts made it across.
After a nerve-jangling wait for another TMO decision, no try was awarded but still Japan came forward and eventually Hesketh dived over in the corner, and into the history books, to cap a truly remarkable afternoon.