Brave Blossoms Return Home with Their Heads Held High

The Brave Blossoms have returned to Japan after having missed out on reaching the final-eight at Rugby World Cup 2023 following their loss to Argentina in their final Pool D match. While it was not the result the team and Japan rugby fans were hoping for, the Brave Blossoms once again showed their unquestionable passion, effort, and never-say-die attitude across all four of their matches.

Speaking at a press conference in Tokyo following the arrival of the team back in Japan, an emotional Jamie Joseph, who is stepping down from his position as Head Coach of the Brave Blossoms, reflected on the World Cup campaign and his seven years coaching the Japan team.

“Firstly, I would like to thank everybody for their massive support of the team. Both in Japan and with the visiting fans who came to France. The fans were incredible, and it felt like a second home in France with the amount of Japanese fans that supported the team right throughout the World Cup.

“Of course, as a team we’re really disappointed with not winning that final match against Argentina. But as a coach, I’m very proud of the way our players played in that test match. It was a very tough game and everybody could see that our players gave it everything. They wanted it more than anything and for their effort alone, I’m incredibly proud. However, when it comes down to it, we’re now home and we’re not in France anymore. I feel gutted for the team because everyone has worked so hard. There are really no fairy tales in sport.”

Looking back to the start of the tournament, Japan began their campaign in winning style with a solid 42-12 victory over tournament debutants Chile. The Brave Blossoms scored six tries to two, including a brace from second-row sensation, Amato Fakatava, who was playing in his first Rugby World and in only his fourth test match for Japan. He was joined on the scoresheet by Jone Naikabula, Michael Leitch, Ryoto Nakamura and Warner Dearns who all scored tries, while flyhalf Rikiya Matsuda put in a perfect display from the tee, kicking six from six conversions.

Their next encounter against England presented a far greater challenge. Starting well, Japan kept in touch with the 2003 World Champions for the majority of the match. However, mistakes and lapses in concentration started to creep into Japan’s game in the second half, allowing England to pull away and eventually bring up a flattering final score of 34-12. While England played a solid match and were unquestionably the better side on the day, the final score didn’t really do justice to how close Japan kept them for the majority of the match.

Having lost to England, Japan then headed back to Toulouse for their must-win match against Samoa, a fixture they needed to win to have any chance of progressing through to the last eight. While Samoa beat Japan 22-24 in Sapporo back in July, during the Lipovitan D Challenge Cup 2023 Pacific Nations Series, an early red card to Michael Leitch in that game suggested that Japan had more to offer against Samoa in their Pool D fixture.

Japan broke out to a solid early lead through tries to the starting back-row combination of Pieter ‘Lappies’ Labuschagne, Michael Leitch and Captain, Kazuki Himeno. Samoa scored a try on the stroke of half-time, to stay in touch as the teams went to the sheds. They then staged a second-half comeback, scoring an additional two tries, including one to former Wallaby, Christian Leali’ifano on the 78th minute.

In the end, it was the kicking accuracy of Brave Blossoms sharpshooter, Rikiya Matsuda that separated the two sides. The flyhalf’s accuracy with the boot ensured a hard-fought 28-22 victory for Japan.

Rikiya Matsuda

Following their win over Samoa, Japan then headed to the northwest of France to Nantes to take on Argentina in their final pool match. With both teams coming into the match with nine points each, the eventual winner would secure second place in the pool and go on to play in the Quarter-Finals in Marseille, while the loser would be heading to the airport to catch the next flight home.

In what turned out to be one of the most entertaining matches of the pool stages, Argentina scored a try in the first two minutes through a scything run from centre, Santiago Chocobares who split the Japanese defence to land the first blow. Japan then answered with a sublime try that will feature on World Cup highlight reels for years to come. Big second-rower, Amata Fakatava showed both pace and finesse when he broke free down the left-wing, chipped the ball over the defence, regathered his kick and ran in to score an incredible solo try.

While Japan trailed the South Americans for the entire match, they remained in contention right up the last ten minutes. However, it was not to be Japan’s day and Argentina, led by a three-try performance from winger, Mateo Carreras proved too strong in the end, winning the match 39-27.

Rugby World Cup 2023 – Pool D – Japan vs. Argentina – Stade de Beaujoire, Nantes caption.

Upon returning to Japan and reflecting on his seven years as Head Coach of the Brave Blossoms, Joseph added: “From my perspective, over the last seven years there has been a lot of learnings for me about Japanese rugby. I’ve had a long association playing and coaching here and even played for Japan. Our players respect the opportunity to play for Japan. They all put 100% in in terms of their commitment and put a lot of hours in, spending days and nights away from their families, and they do that for Japan rugby. I’m incredibly proud of that.

“Rugby is what I love, it’s what I do. I will be back, and Japan will always be my second home. Whether it’s for rugby or coming to see friends, I intend to come back regularly.”

Rugby World Cup 2023 – Pool D – Japan vs. Argentina – Stade de Beaujoire, Nantes Japan’s Atsushi SAKATE.

In his closing comments, he made special reference to Brave Blossoms fans. “Japan has the most awesome fans in the world. They don’t scream and yell like the Argentineans, they’re very humble and very supportive. Following the game in Nantes, the players spent time around our hotel, mingling with the fans and signing autographs. That can’t happen in Japan because there’s just too many people, but in a small French town, the players could be themselves, just normal blokes who play rugby and getting the chance to spend time with their fans. It makes me so proud of Japanese fans, how they support their team.”