TOKYO – Their attention might be drifting towards each other but neither Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights nor Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay can afford to take their eyes off the opponents immediately in front of them this weekend, as Japan Rugby League One’s remaining unbeaten sides play their final match before a potential top-of- the-table showdown.
Fresh from a thumping win over the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars, the Spears will be looking to limit the offensive opportunities of the free-scoring Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo who – despite losing their last two – still scored 82 points in those matches.
While Toshiba remain fifth, the back-to-back losses have seen them slip five points off Yokohama Canon Eagles, and they are in danger of falling further after Kobelco Kobe Steelers’ last gasp win over Shizuoka Blue Revs in Match Day Eight closed the gap between themselves and Brave Lupus to just two log points.
Although they have won their last two, for Kobe to continue their climb up the table they must scale Japan Rugby League One’s equivalent of Mt Fuji, when they confront the league’s top dog, the Wild Knights.
For all their class, Saitama have never been entirely comfortable against Kobe, who felled the current defending champions enroute to their own title in 2018.
Each of the third-placed Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, and Yokohama Canon Eagles in fourth, can also anticipate challenging afternoons as they visit Shizuoka Blue Revs and Toyota Verblitz respectively.
Not for the first time this season, the Blue Revs will be kicking themselves for letting go a game they appeared to control, botching a 29-15 advantage while losing to Kobe last Sunday, but they have always been at their best when underrated, and most especially at Yamaha Stadium.
The Wild Knights can attest to that fact, after only escaping courtesy of a winning try scored in added time.
Verblitz are quietly working up a head of steam, and while last weekend’s win over NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu wasn’t earth-shattering, coming from behind late in the game to get the job done was a sign of progress for a side that had all too often let promising opportunities slip earlier in the season.
With one win in eight, the Green Rockets will try again when they visit the faltering Dynaboars, while Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo will be aiming to push clear of the relegation places when they host the still winless Hanazono Kintetsu Liners.
Headline acts, Urayasu D-Rocks, return after a two-week break when they travel to Aichi to face the Toyota Industries Shuttles in one of two games in Division Two, while the sole action in Division Three sees a top-of-the- table clash between Kyushu Electric Kyuden Voltex and NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes Osaka.
Saturday February 25
RICOH BLACK RAMS TOYKO v HANAZONO KINTETSU LINERS
Komazawa Olympic Park Athletic Stadium, Tokyo, 12pm (JT)
After a run of four matches which reads Saitama Wild Knights, Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, Yokohama Canon Eagles and Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, the players and staff of Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo must be looking forward to getting back into their own ‘weight’ division.
Not that they did too badly against the current top four: Ricoh lost to Kubota by two, limited Suntory to two tries, and were more than competitive against each of Panasonic and Canon.
This reads well when lined up against an opponent whose scorecard reports: Played 8, lost 8, Points for 133, Points against 431, Difference – 298.
But games aren’t won on paper and the Black Rams’ Australian coach Peter Hewat will know that – as much as his side will feel Hanazono Kintetsu Liners are there for the taking – so too will the visitors feel that the league’s 10- ranked side are within their range.
The Black Rams were unhappy with their set-piece last weekend, as the lack of clean possession meant they spent most of the game defending and – as well as they managed to hold Suntory – you don’t win games without the ball.
“Our set pieces didn’t work, and we couldn’t create a flow,” Hewat explained to local media after the game.
“I told the team that their effort, their continued fighting, and their defence defending their try line were excellent. I’m really proud of the attitude of fighting so hard for each other.”
Kintetsu will share those feelings given what could have been a thoroughly depressing afternoon at Kumagaya last weekend, didn’t turn out too bad, with the visitors outgunned but not outclassed by the Wild Knights.
“The team is definitely moving forward, so we will continue to stick to the small things and do our best to help us win,” Hanazono coach Yoshitake Mizuma told Japanese media afterwards.
“In terms of the team’s progress, there were many players who tried to do something by themselves [in earlier matches] by making forced passes and playing without responsibility, but in this match [against Saitama], we were able to play our role and the next player connected [with] the ball. I think we can appreciate that we are making progress in that regard.”
Holding the league leaders to just three more points than they scored against Ricoh, Kintetsu didn’t capitulate after trailing 27-3 at halftime, resisting a blowout during a competitive second half that ended 14-3.
The effort, if not the outcome, should provide reason for optimism as the Osaka-based Liners return to Tokyo.
KUBOTA SPEARS FUNABASHI TOKYO BAY v TOSHBA BRAVE LUPUS TOKYO
Edogawa Athletic Stadium, Tokyo, 12pm (JT) Things are starting to get serious for Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo.
While Saturday’s date with Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay is their second last against the current top four, with only the return match with Saitama to come on Match Day 16, Brave Lupus can ill afford to give up any more ground on the said four teams.
Having lost their last three against the Spears by 32, 15 and eight points respectively, last year’s semi-finalists badly need to reverse that trend, and be the first team to beat Kubota this term, to re-start their playoffs bid.
The concession of 89 points over the last two weekends is hardly semi-final ‘form’, and while their discipline last weekend against Yokohama improved markedly from the Fuchu derby the round before, their lineout didn’t, losing seven off their own feed.
“Our lineout was under pressure from the [our] opponents” Toshiba coach Todd Blackadder explained at the post-game media conference.
“We couldn’t get seven lineouts. If that happens at this level, we won’t [don’t] have a chance to play our game. I am proud of the players that we were able to regain momentum in the second half. It was good that we were able to show our true selves.”
Five second half tries showed what Brave Lupus can do when they can “play their game” and the return of All Black centre Seta Tamanivalu, who missed the loss at Canon, will have the Spears on alert.
While Frans Ludeke’s men have impressed with the ball in big moments, scoring the most points in the league, their defensive work remains a concern, conceding an average of 22 points per outing.
Keeping Toshiba’s all-out attack quiet could be the perfect lead-in to their date with the Wild Knights.
SHIZUOKA BLUE REVS v TOKYO SUNTORY SUNGOLIATH
Yamaha Stadium, Iwata (Shizuoka), 2.30pm (JT)
Despite a return for the season that should, on the run of play, be better than just two wins, the Shizuoka Blue Revs won’t have to look far for inspiration as they welcome Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath.
Although their most recent meeting last term saw Sungoliath prevail, the Blue Revs led 24-18 at the end of a memorable first half where they scored four tries, two by current co-captain and Springbok Kwagga Smith.
Suntory prevailed in the end but were aided significantly by a try from Wallaby Samu Kerevi and 18 points off the boot of All Black Damien McKenzie, neither of whom will be present in Iwata city this weekend.
While Shizuoka has won just one of three at home so far, one of the defeats came in injury time, and they should have come into this game on the back of three straight wins, bowing to an 80th minute penalty goal last weekend.
“We’ve created chances, we are [not] taking them,” Smith told media after that loss.
“I think it is a problem of personal skills and execution ability, which leads to the fact that we are missing tries. However, I don’t think we are the same team as last year. We are improving steadily. This is evident in the fact that we have conceded fewer goals [tries] than last year.”
By contrast, Sungoliath are sailing along sweetly, unbeaten in seven since the opening day loss to Kubota. While they are averaging 37 points per outing, last weekend yielded just two tries in an 18-7 slog at Ricoh.
Not that Director of coaching Kiyonori Tanaka was complaining, especially given the team he fielded contained no foreign internationals due to injury.
“Learning while winning these games will be a great asset for the team in the future. I think it was a good game for us,” Tanaka told Japanese media post-game.
“We knew that the Category C [foreign test] players weren’t going to be able to play, so I’m not pessimistic about that. We have a lot of good players, and we are a team that is working hard and improving their skills.”
TOYOTA VERBITZ v YOKOHAMA CANON EAGLES
Paloma Mizuho Rugby Stadium, Aichi, 2.30pm (JT)
When Yokohama Canon Eagles coach Keisuke Sawake was making his tactical notes once the season got underway, this is a game he might have marked ‘be careful’.
Because while Toyota Verblitz haven’t yet hit the heights many expected of their star roster pre-season, Steve Hansen’s men have shown encouraging signs in recent outings, suggesting that – while they might currently be ranked ninth – they are still not done with as a semi-final contender.
As the side holding down fourth position on the ladder, the Eagles are the closest to Verblitz of those currently occupying the playoff positions, and although the gap is a healthy 10 points, there are still seven qualifying games to go which means there is time for a ‘chaser’ like Toyota to gobble that lead up.
If they are to do so, Verblitz must take advantage of their home field – where they need to improve on their 50 percent return so far – to knock Yokohama off stride, building on last weekend’s come-from-behind win over the NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu.
The Green Rockets brought plenty of physicality to Aichi and while it had Verblitz back-peddling at times, muscle alone wasn’t enough to keep the home side down.
The ploy to relocate Springbok fullback Willie le Roux to first receiver worked a treat, increasing Toyota’s attacking threat, while their work over the ball at the breakdown, especially by classy backrowers Kazuki Himeno and Pieter Steph du Toit, denied the Green Rockets momentum at critical stages.
Steph du Toit will know the importance of disrupting Yokohama’s talisman, his Springbok teammate Faf de Klerk, given the star halfback has been the fulcrum of an Eagles’ attack that has scored 43 tries, second only to Kubota.
Discipline will also be crucial, given Canon flyhalf Yu Tamura kicks at 83 percent, but with Toyota’s penalty count the lowest in the league, the Eagles may not be able to build pressure in multiples of three.
If there was to be a concern for the visitors, who have won four of their last five, it is the way the Eagles leaked at an alarming rate in the last 25 minutes against Brave Lupus, seemingly putting their feet up early as Toshiba ran riot, scoring 33 points.
Such habits are not conducive to playoff success, and hinted at a lack of maturity Sawake himself has referenced. Sealing the leaks against a side carrying the threat of Verblitz, would be another sign the Eagles are growing up.
Sunday February 26
MITSUBISHI HEAVY INDUSTRIES SAGAMIHARA DYNABOARS v NEC GREEN ROCKETS TOKATSU
Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo, 12pm (JT)
With no wins between them through the last four weeks, there could be an air of desperation as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars square off against NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu.
Although the Dynaboars still hold seventh position on the ladder, their midtable comfort has become tenuous, and a loss to the Green Rockets has the potential to fuel relegation talk, especially as the three sides immediately below them are not playing that badly.
While not winning, the 11th-placed Green Rockets almost fall into that category too, and signs of improvement were obvious last weekend at Verblitz where they were unfortunate to lose after dominating at times.
Finally scoring points after successive shutouts will have helped confidence levels and a summary of Dynaboars’ recent defeats will tell the NEC camp that if they can stay in the contest for long enough, Sagamihara does become vulnerable, leaking points in clumps.
Three tries in 12 minutes immediately after halftime by Kubota put paid to the Dynaboars last weekend, after Kobe had done similar in Match Day Seven, turning a 14-6 halftime score into 42-18, 25 minutes later, which sealed Sagamihara’s fate.
Seventeen points in 10 minutes after halftime by Sungoliath did a similar job, three games back.
The concession of 160 points in the last three outings represents a dramatic drop in defensive standards after Mitsubishi conceded just 119 across the first five games, hinting that concentration levels as well as limited playing resources are starting to bite.
Given NEC are revealing the same limitations, an even game of footy could be in order.
KOBELCO KOBE STEELERS v SAITAMA PANASONIC WILD KNIGHTS
Kobe Sports Park Universiade Memorial Stadium, Hyogo, 2.30pm (JT)
Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights might have romped through the opening two seasons of Japan Rugby League One to extend their current on field unbeaten sequence to 40 games since the 2018 semi-finals, but if there is one team with reason not to be intimidated when facing the defending champions, then it’s Kobelco Kobe Steelers.
The last team not to lose to the Wild Knights, after holding Panasonic to a 13-13 draw 29 games ago during the final Top League in 2021, Kobe has since lost twice to Saitama, but only by a collective 10 points, losing to an 82nd minute try during a 41-37 loss, before trailing by one at halftime in a 37-31 defeat eight games later.
Both were played last term, and while the personnel at Kobe’s disposal have changed significantly since then, their level of competitiveness through the current campaign, which includes a nine-point loss to fourth-placed Yokohama, and defeat by four against still unbeaten Kubota, suggests they remain a potential banana skin the league leaders must negotiate with skill.
There was plenty of that last week when the Wild Knights rolled out the backups to roll Kintetsu, but the big guns will return for this appointment, both to ensure no repeat of two years ago, but also for a final tune up ahead of next week’s top-of-the-table showdown.
That includes Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete who was rested last weekend, and Springbok inside centre Damien de Allende, who has just returned from paternity leave.
Panasonic reverting to its top XV means budding Kobe star, 22-year-old flyhalf Seungsin Lee, will get to test himself against his two more experienced international colleagues, Rikiya Matsuda and Takuya Yamasawa, each of whom was a Brave Blossoms teammate last year.
Saitama coach Robbie Deans has rotated his test flyhalves through the campaign, often deploying Yamasawa at fullback, so that selection is of interest, given its ramifications for Panasonic, but also Japanese test calculations.
The Kobe attack has been down on firepower without its’ injured All Black Ngane Laumape.
Should he overcome his knee problem in time to suit up against the Wild Knights, he might at some point find himself up against a former teammate in Vince Aso, who shared the midfield at times with Laumape during the pair’s time in Wellington with the Hurricanes.
Although not always a starter in Japan, Aso got the nod last week and rewarded that decision by scoring a try.
Find All Here:
–Apple Podcasts/iTunes: Rugby Wrap Up
–Twitter: @RugbyWrapUp, @Matt_McCarthy00, @JonnyLewisFilms, @LizardRugby, @LanningZach, @ColbyMarshall2, @Junoir Blaber, @JWB_RWU, @MeetTheMatts, @Declan Yeats.
–Face Book: https://www.facebook.com/RugbyWrapUp
#USARugby #MajorLeagueRugby #RugbyWrapUp #OldGlory #RugbyATL #RugbyNY #NewEnglandFreeJacks #NOLAGold #TorontoArrows #SixNations #WorldRugby #SuperRugby #Top14 #PremiershipRugby #Pro14 #URC #UnitedRugbyChampionship #RugbyOdds #RugbyBetting #CollegeRugby #MLR2022 #GoogleAlerts #MLRWeekly #JRLO #GoogleAlerts