Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round Thirteen Review

Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round Thirteen Review

Division One – It’s ‘squeaky bum’ time for Kobe

It’s come down to this.
Win four games back-to-back or the season’s revival is going to fall short.
That is the assignment facing former Wallaby coach Dave Rennie and his Kobelco Kobe Steelers as their campaign reaches what former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson once quaintly referred to as ‘squeaky bum’ time.
The Kobe defence was certainly ‘squeaking’ in the second half against Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath during a 36-27 defeat on Sunday that could yet be the moment a visit to the semi-finals slipped from the 2018 champions’ grasp.
Standing in their way as Kobe begins their walk on the edge is a Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo outfit that is flying.

After a steady build up since Todd Blackadder joined the club in 2019, which included an appearance in the semi- finals two years ago and a narrow miss last term, the former Crusaders and Bath coach has his men on course for a serious shot at the title, having lost just once.

Blackadder added the All Blacks, flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and backrower Shannon Frizell, to his roster in the off- season and they have proved inspired signings.

Mo’unga was ice cool last weekend as he converted the match-winning try in referee’s time against Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, with the goal taking his season tally to 126, fourth on the rankings.
That he also ranks number one for try ‘assists’ shows just how good the investment in the seven-time Super Rugby-winner has been.
With eight tries to his name in his debut season in Japan Rugby League One – which is only 11 short of the number he scored in 68 games of Super Rugby for the Highlanders – Frizell has arguably over-achieved in terms of the expectations of him, especially in terms of his contribution on the scoreboard.

Yet, even more than they points they have scored, it is what the pair have brought out of the rest of the Toshiba cast that has been so impressive.
In terms of both consistency and belief, this Brave Lupus outfit are a step up on the class of 2023, and that edition only just missed the semi-finals!
All of which means that Kobe, led by their All Black cohort of backrower Ardie Savea, second rower Brodie Retallick and inside centre Ngane Laumape, are going to have to be at their very best in Sunday’s blockbuster if they are going to take down their in-form opponent.
Fail to do so, and their semi-final fate is most likely out of their hands.
Expect loads of points as the winner of this contest has exceeded 40 on each of the last five occasions, while the Steelers have leaked more than 30 in a third of their outings so far this term.
Yokohama Canon Eagles took advantage of Kobe’s defeat last weekend to move four points ahead of their rivals in what has almost become a head-to-head race for the last qualifying spot.
Once again playing before their chief semi-final competitors take the field, Eagles coach Keisuke Sawake will be targeting five-points against winless Hanazono Kintetsu Liners tomorrow night, to increase the gap on the standings.
Form and history suggest they will, with the Eagles scoring over 60 points on the last three occasions they have encountered Kintetsu.
After an inconsistent start, which included being hampered by the loss of both of their Springbok stars, scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and centre Jesse Kriel, to season-ending injuries, the Eagles have rallied in recent weeks, working themselves into a great position to repeat last season’s semi-final appearance.
Having won four of the last five after initially struggling in the immediate aftermath of their two overseas internationals departing, belief will be soaring, but their coach has been around a long time, previously winning the title unbeaten with Suntory, and he knows sport can be a fickle enterprise at times.
With the unbeaten Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, who put 53 points on the Eagles on the opening day of the season, still to play, Sawake knows his side must do the business now, to ensure their playoffs future does not rest
on the final round visit to the side that eliminated them from the competition last term.
Having taken 15 games to win a match in Division One last season, Kintetsu remain in danger of drawing a complete blank this time. They have four more chances to avoid that indignity, although failure to win on Friday night will confirm their spot
in The Replacement Battle regardless of their results in the final three rounds of the regular season.

Toyota late to the party (again!)

This time a year ago, Toyota Verblitz were out of the running.
A record of four wins from 12 meant that the semi-finals were gone for Steve Hansen’s men, who were reduced to playing for pride, and a finish as high up the table as was possible.
It turned out to be their best period of the season.
With the pressure valve released, Verblitz won their last four to finish sixth.
A year earlier, they won four of the last five they played (a sixth was defaulted due to Covid) to finish fifth after having played their way out of contention with five losses from the first nine matches that weren’t impacted by the pandemic.
Having not featured in the semi-finals since the abbreviated 2020-21 competition, Verblitz has invested heavily to try and make it back.
Springbok fullback Willie le Roux and backrower Pieter Steph du Toit, alongside All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flyhalf Beauden Barrett, as well as England second-rower Joe Launchbury, have all graced the jersey since the last appearance in the playoffs, without being able to affect a return.
While the semi-finals are still mathematically possible this term, it’s a long shot, with fifth most likely the best they can now do.
To keep any faint hopes of end-of-season play alive Verblitz, who have Barrett back after his one-week suspension, will be looking to repeat the second of last year’s meetings with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Sagamihara Dynaboars where they administered a 53-5 lesson.
It was quite a turnaround after Sagamihara had inflicted a shock 27-25 defeat on Match Day Two, which triggered a run of five defeats in six that effectively knocked Verblitz out of the competition.
With a nine-point gap between themselves and 10th-placed Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo, the Dynaboars should avoid back-to-back appearances in the Relegation Battle, although a repeat of last year’s upset against Toyota would be another step towards safety, in a season that has so far yielded five wins.

While already one more than they achieved last term, add a sixth and Glen Delaney’s side can start planning for next season’s campaign knowing they will be playing in the topflight.
Although it has appeared a certainty since the season kicked off, it will be mathematically impossible for Mie Honda Heat to avoid The Replacement Battle should they suffer the eighth consecutive defeat of their relationship with Sungoliath.
The positives from Suntory’s deserved win over Kobe were tempered by the sight of Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe limping off in the second half, but while he will be missing on Saturday, another commanding performance will further boost Sungoliath’s burgeoning confidence after securing four wins from their last five.
Two more and their semi-final spot will be confirmed.
Like Toyota, Shizuoka Blue Revs are clinging on to semi-final hopes, but these will be extinguished should they lose to defending champions Kubota.
Having won their last three on the bounce, the Blue Revs won’t lack for confidence, with Saturday offering the chance to end an ugly losing streak, which has seen Shizuoka not beat Kubota at home since 2006.
The Spears will have spent the week reflecting on the ‘what ifs’ of a title defence that never really got started, with their decline arguably beginning even before the competition began, when their talisman, Springbok hooker Malcom Marx, incurred a season-long injury at the Rugby World Cup.
With injuries also plaguing internationals Liam Williams, Bernard Foley, and Dane Coles too, it was almost appropriate that their title defence was effectively terminated in unfortunate circumstances by the unlucky loss to Brave Lupus, where they put themselves in a good position shortly after halftime but were pipped at the post by their red-hot rivals.
A strong finish will at least allow the Spears to take some consolation into the summer as coach Frans Ludeke and his staff start thinking about the changes they might make for the fourth edition of Japan Rugby League One.

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