It is 21:15 on 12 October, 2003, at the Dairy Farmers Stadium, Townsville, Queensland, Australia. Winger Hirotoki Onozawa has just finished off a flowing first-phase backs move by scoring in the corner and Japan are within four points of Scotland with 23 minutes of the match remaining.
It was not to be for the team known as the Cherry Blossoms. Late tries by Chris Paterson, Simon Taylor and Simon Danielli helped the Scots to a flattering 32-11 victory – but it became a red-letter day for Japanese rugby.
Despite enjoying only 17 per cent of possession, the Blossoms were more creative and entertaining than their Tier 1 opponents, and could have scored twice in the first half as their midfield punched holes in the Scottish defence only for last-ditch tackles on Onozawa and Daisuke Ohata on the opposite wing to deny them the five-pointers.
Brave and bold Japan
Along with their characteristically cavalier attack, Japan demonstrated a hitherto-unseen steel in defence, attempting 168 tackles and making 136 of them.
While RWC 2003 did not mark a complete change in fortunes for Japan – they struggled to make their mark until they beat South Africa at the 2015 tournament – one thing that did change in Townsville was the public’s attitude towards the team, and their nickname. The Cherry Blossoms were now the Brave Blossoms.
“After the game I was talking to Mark Bell, one of the coaches, about what a brave performance it had been for 60 minutes,” says Rich Freeman, an English rugby journalist who has been based in Japan for more than 20 years.
“A lot of the journalists were talking about ‘Brave Blossoms’ and one of the local papers used it in a headline. I used it in my copy for the Japan Times.
“At the time Japan didn’t really have a nickname. ‘Cherry Blossoms’ was their English nickname but in Japan they were either called ‘Mukai Japan’, after then-coach Shogo Mukai, or people talked about ‘the Sakura jersey’.
“So from 2003 I started using ‘Brave Blossoms’ every now and again to break up the copy rather than just ‘Japan, Japan, Japan’ and I stuck with it.”
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Coming around to Brave Blossoms
“The Japan RFU weren’t very happy at first and didn’t like it being used. I used to write the English-language pages on their website and they would always take it out and replace it with ‘Japan’,” Freeman continued.
“But in 2009 the Classic All Blacks were over and Andrew Mehrtens used it in the post-match interview in front of the whole crowd in Kobe.
“The JRFU thought ‘Maybe this nickname isn’t such a bad idea’, and since the win over South Africa they’ve really marketed it. Now we’re seeing ‘We are Brave Blossoms’ in the street, on shirts and everywhere.”
Issued by World Rugby on Rugbyworldcup.com