25 September 2015


Daniel Gallan

Cinderella stories, fairy tale results, no-hopers inspiring hope; whenever an underdog manages to upset a much better and accomplished rival in sport we can’t help but get romantic about the games we love. By its definition, an upset takes us all by surprise and throws egg on the face of so-called experts and allows the few that somehow managed to predict the result to say, “I told you so.” But can we draw any parallels between famous upsets and if so, can we use these common themes to predict future upsets? CONQA Sport explores the blueprint of a sporting upset. 

Japan celebrate one of the famous upsets in sport's history after they beat South Africa 34-32 in their opening game at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in Brighton, England.  Image supplied by Action Images/ Eddie Keogh

Japan celebrate one of the famous upsets in sport's history after they beat South Africa 34-32 in their opening game at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in Brighton, England. Image supplied by Action Images/ Eddie Keogh

Before the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, South Africa’s Springboks had a better win percentage than any other team at the tournament since its inception in 1987. Since the Boks joined in 1995, they have won 2 of the five World Cups they have competed in and 25 of their 29 matches for a win rate of 86.2%.

The Boks had never lost their opening fixture, and were certainly not expected to do so in Brighton last week against second-tier minnows, Japan, a team that had only won once in the history of the tournament, against Zimbabwe in 1991.

Coach Heyneke Meyer fielded the most experienced Springbok team in history, with 880 Test caps, against the Brave Blossoms, and played like a side who expected to bag an easy victory by merely showing up. They lacked imagination on attack and were out-muscled by their smaller opponents on defence. Japan lived up to their name and pulled off an astonishing 34-32 victory that no one could have honestly predicted. This was not merely rugby’s greatest upset, but arguably world sports.

Meyer and his Springboks have been labelled as arrogant and technically poor, while others have chosen to shower Japan and their coach, Eddie Jones, one of the greatest minds in world rugby, with plaudits and adulation. Whether you choose to attribute this result to the brilliance of the Japanese players, the poorness of their South African counterparts, or a combination of the two, you’ll have to admit that this result will go down in history as a colossal victory for the underdog.

But can we draw anything from this result that might explain why upsets like this happen? By its very definition, an upset is something that is not expected and throws conventional sporting wisdoms out the window. Upsets are one of the reasons we love sport, as scripts are torn up and the drama of the human condition ad libs its way to an astonishing crescendo. But by looking at other upsets throughout history, there are some interesting parallels.

Whenever an upset occurs, we are always reminded of the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. David, a small shepherd boy, slew the giant Goliath with a sling shot against all odds. Goliath, like the Springboks, assumed that his size and strength would be enough to overcome his smaller opponent. The arrogance of Goliath was his downfall and for any upset to occur, the favourite almost always underestimates the weaker opponent.

Japanese based Springbok scrumhalf, Fourie du Preez, said he tried to warn his teammates that Japan were not to be underestimated. He toldNews24 that, “they were probably better prepared than us, they had a lot of focus areas where they targeted us. They outsmarted us.” It is simply unacceptable that a team like South Africa would need to be warned of an opponent’s ability. It shows a lack of professionalism and respect for the occasion.

When England made their FIFA World Cup debut in 1950, they were the self-proclaimed “Kings of Football” and were 500-1 favourites to beat the semi-professionals of the USA. Shockingly, they lost 1-0 thanks to a first half goal by Joe Gaetjens. Entitlement is all well and good if transferred into confidence, but disdain for preparation on the assumption of victory, and the arrogance of assumed superiority, meant the Boks, like the English of 1950, were found wanting against an opponent who wanted it more.

The Japanese did indeed outsmart their more illustrious opponents. Eddie Jones is a master tactician and targeted the Springboks strength of powerful athletes and turned it into a weakness. They were especially dominant at the breakdown and in the tackle, positioning their bodies low down and supporting the tackler effectively, resulting in seven turnovers and five penalty goals for the brilliant fullback, Ayumu Goromaru.

They kept the game narrow, a ploy that might seem to favour the larger forwards of the Springboks, but condensed them between the 15m tramlines and created a bottle neck where they were unable to find space. This sent ripples throughout the South African pack who suffered the indignity of conceding a rolling maul try. Japan’s ability to move the Springbok pack around the park begs for a comparison to the Japanese martial art of jujutsu where your opponent’s strength is used as a weapon.

New York Giants receiver David Tyree (L) hauls in a Eli Manning (not pictured) pass last in the fourth quarter for a first down during the NFL's Super Bowl XLII. This victory is regarded as one of the greatest upsets of all time as the Patriots were chasing a perfect season and were expected to win the final comfortably.  Image supplied by Action Images/ Shaun Best.

New York Giants receiver David Tyree (L) hauls in a Eli Manning (not pictured) pass last in the fourth quarter for a first down during the NFL's Super Bowl XLII. This victory is regarded as one of the greatest upsets of all time as the Patriots were chasing a perfect season and were expected to win the final comfortably. Image supplied by Action Images/ Shaun Best.

It was a bold strategy by Jones and shows that for an upset to occur, risk is required. Speaking at the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference, ESPN’s Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner explained how they have been able to predict, with some accuracy, an upset in NCAA basketball. They state that one way for an underdog to achieve victory is to increase their points variability.

On average, better teams score more points than their weaker opponents. If that is the case, it is often worth smaller teams increasing their chances of getting a thumping if they also increase their chances of victory. They could play it safe and hope for the best or they could conclude that losing by 50 or losing by 5 is still losing. Rather take that risk than be left wondering.

By fronting up to the Springboks physically, and keeping the ball narrow, Japan could have simply been swept away by South Africa’s forwards. They weren't, and were therefore able to stick to a plan that few saw coming.

Another important theme prevalent in most upsets is that the underdog played up their status as the weaker force. It is important not to overplay the underdog card as a negative mind-set will most certainly result in poor play, but athletes often run on bravado and the chance to prove doubters wrong can be a strong motivator. Jones talked up his players before the tournament and even stated that his side were capable of reaching the quarterfinals. Not many people took this seriously and, though we can only speculate, it's a fair assumption that Jones and his coaching staff fired up the Japanese players and used the opportunity to prove the world wrong as a great motivator. 

When the New York Giants faced off against the New England patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl, almost no one gave them a chance. The Patriots were chasing a perfect 19-0 season and were trumpeted as one of the best teams the sport had ever produced. They also had superstar quarterback Tom Brady dictating play. The night before the game, the Giants replayed journalists’ and pundits’ predictions on who would win. Not one expert backed the Giants and this fired up the alpha-males in the room. As Giants linebacker Zak DeOssie said, “Having that chip on your shoulder, as the mentality of an underdog, will allow you to fully commit to whatever game plan is put in front of you.” When an athlete is backed up against a wall, knowing that there is no expectation to succeed can be liberating.

The Patriots were chasing a perfect season, just as the Springboks were looking to maintain their perfect record in opening matches of the World Cup. Another theme that Keating and Brenner touch on is the concept of a vulnerable giant. Famous upsets often accompany a favourite chasing a particular record or winning streak. When Serena Williams lost her US Open semi-final to unseeded Roberta Vinci earlier this month, she was chasing a Grand Slam triumph of winning all four Majors – having already won this year’s Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon – a feat not matched since Steffi Graf achieved it in 1988.  She stumbled at the penultimate hurdle despite being in the form of her life. Success breeds success but it can often breed expectation. In elite sport, nothing should ever be taken for granted.

The beauty of sport is that we can never fully predict what is going to happen. It’s why we watch and love it. It’s why thousands of armchair pundits often accurately guess the results and established experts get it so wrong. These are real humans and the variables are infinite. Sure, over time, the cream rises to the top, but in a once off encounter, underdogs are able to pull off an upset.

In what is one of the greatest upsets of all time, a group of college students and no-namers from the USA took on the seasoned professionals of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics for the gold medal in ice hockey. No one gave them a chance and yet they won 4-3 in a match that will forever be remembered as the “Miracle on Ice”. An upset like the one the Japanese were able to pull off is without doubt a sporting miracle. That’s why we love sport and why sports fans offer a glimmer of hope to rest of the world. We believe in miracles, and have proof that they exist.