How time flies. Was it only seven months ago in the tropical heat of Townsville, Australia, that Japan played such scintillating rugby that it scared the living daylights out of both France and Scotland during its adventures down under in the 2003 Rugby World Cup?

One would hardly have known it was the same team after watching the Brave Blossoms — as they have now been named — scrape out a 19-19 draw with archrival South Korea at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya on Sunday.

Admittedly the rain didn’t help, with the ball resembling a bar of soap, but Japan’s first game under new coach Mitsutake Hagimoto was not what the former Kobe Steel head coach had envisioned.

“I am sorry for today’s game,” he said to reporters after the match. “The players were not good today particularly in retaining the ball. I never thought this would happen. The only good thing is we didn’t lose.”

The game had started so well for Japan with Luatangi Vatuvei being pushed over for a try after just five minutes, but the lengthy delay that followed, as someone tried to find the sand for kicker Hiroaki Ito, was indicative of the all-around disorganization prevalent in the Japan camp.

The South Koreans had obviously noticed that Japan’s back three have always had problems under the high ball and they spent most of the afternoon putting up Garry Owens that caused problems in the Japan defense.

However, they could, when given the chance, run and a powerful break by Kwak Chul Woong led to a try by Park Chang Min in the 25th minute.

Japan regrouped and, utilizing its numerical advantage after Woong had been sent to the sin bid for a dangerous tackle, scored twice through debutant center Masatoshi Mukoyama, both the result of well-worked moves with Ito.

That should have seen Japan stretch clear of its opponent but sloppy handling and an inability to vary its line of attack allowed the Koreans to stay in it.

Park Chan Sik then took full advantage of a missed tackle in the 60th minute to crash over and with Yun Hi Su adding the extra two points there was a feeling around the ground that all was not well.

However, it needed a piece of individual brilliance topped off by an act of unselfishness to bring the teams level.

With 15 minutes left on the clock Chun Jong Man received the ball five meters from his own line. Ten seconds later he had crossed the Japan line after an amazing 90-meter run but realizing his side needed a conversion to bring it level he passed inside to Kim Keun Hyun to touch down, thereby giving Yun Hi Su an easier angle for his kick. The fullback duly added the extra two points and despite having a second player stretchered off, the Koreans held on for the draw.

“We had a good game and got a good result,” said South Korean captain Park Chang Min. “There were gaps in Japan’s defensive line and we were not fazed by their open play.”

The game, part of the long and convoluted qualifying process that determines which team represents Asia at the 2007 World Cup, was the first of six internationals this year for Japan.

Russia is next up for the Brave Blossoms on May 27 before a game with either Canada or the U.S. in the final or third-place game in the Super Powers Cup in Tokyo. Japan then plays host to Italy on July 4, before a European tour in November, during which it will take on Scotland and Wales.

There will need to be a considerable improvement if Japan is to bring back the glory days of Australia 2003.

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