Japan Rugby League One Preview

Japan Rugby League One Preview

Division One – Old ‘friends’ re-unite.

The finalists from the last Top League and the first Japan Rugby League One will reacquaint themselves with each other as Division One resumes at Kumagaya on Saturday. The pair return to league duty after contrasting performances in The Cross Border Rugby. While Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath were outclassed by the (Auckland) Blues after choosing to rest their international stars, Springbok Cheslin Kolbe and All Black Sam Cane, Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights recorded an historic victory after running out a full-strength side against the Gallagher (Waikato) Chiefs. Kolbe and Cane return for the visit to the Saitama prefecture. Between them, Suntory and Panasonic have won 11 titles since a nationwide league was established in Japan, with the Wild Knights winning the last two title matches against their traditional rivals. Their latest meeting won’t decide this tournament, but it does have added significance for the ladder as one of only two competition matches the sides have played in a month. Saitama, who are one of only two teams still unbeaten in the league, thumped the Chiefs 38-14 in The Cross Border Rugby, but the victory against last year’s Super Rugby finalists did come at a cost for Robbie Deans and his men, as giant second rower Esei Haangana suffered a dislocated shoulder. While the Wild Knights have depth in the position, with former Super Rugby player Mark Abbott a useful replacement, Haangana, who had been in great form, could be unavailable for some time. The Wild Knights had piled on 151 points from their latest two league engagements prior to dumping the Chiefs, which is ominous for a Suntory defensive line that has been surprisingly leaky thus far. Although third on the point’s table, the position belies a defensive record that rates only seventh in the league. 

Sungoliath are third for attack numbers but have still scored 126 points less than Saturday’s opponents from the same number of outings. At Aichi, Toyota Verblitz will be seeking meaningful momentum after an indifferent start encompassing three wins and three defeats; a 50 percent record which leaves the side languishing in the bottom half of the table. With 10 matches remaining, there is still plenty of time for eighth-placed Verblitz to extricate themselves from a position currently well short of expectations, although with a tough run comprising Kobelco Kobe Steelers, Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath and Shizuoka Blue Revs in the four rounds that follow Saturday’s match, their margin for error is shrinking. Star All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett won’t suit up, with his absence a further complication for Director of Rugby Steve Hansen and the Toyota brains trust. Their challenges pale into significance compared to those facing Mie Honda Heat, who have had a disastrous start on their return to the top section, having lost all six matches. Bottom of the log, Heat have shipped 361 points, at an average of 60 per game, but new boss Kieran Crowley will have utilised the month since the side suffered a heavy defeat against the Wild Knights to instil his coaching philosophy and reinforce his methods with the players. The experienced former Canada and Italy coach started his maiden season in Japan at a slight disadvantage, having not arrived until after his commitments with the Azzurri in the Rugby World Cup concluded. Losing the inspirational former Argentine skipper Pablo Matera to injury at that tournament has further hindered Crowley, with the Los Pumas’ backrower having been a key figure in Honda’s promotion season.

Matera is yet to return to duty. In Division Two, the top-of-the-table ping-pong is set to continue as Urayasu D-Rocks host Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves in the only match that will be played in the lower sections this weekend. D-Rocks lost top spot while on the sidelines after Toyota Industries Corporation Shuttles Aichi beat Red Hurricanes Osaka last Saturday, but with their closest rivals denied a try-scoring bonus point, outright leadership is up for grabs against the Seawaves. It has been an unhappy season so far for Kamaishi, but the ‘Iron Man of the North’ gave D-Rocks a difficult afternoon on the last occasion that the two sides met, wiping out a 30-point halftime deficit to close to within 11 before three tries in the last three minutes gave Urayasu a flattering 52-22 final scoreline. With Kamaishi curiously better away than beside the sea in recent seasons, the visitors will be aiming to give DRocks – a side who beat them 92-19 last season – another uncomfortable time on their latest trip to Tokyo. Division Three returns on February 24, with Hino Red Dolphins now the runaway leaders on the point’s table after flattening third-placed Mazda SkyActivs Hiroshima 61-12 last Sunday. Well-travelled flyhalf Simon Hickey scored 21 of Hino’s points to move eight clear of his nearest rival on the individual points standings, raising his tally for the campaign to 54 from four outings in the Red Dolphins jersey.

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