Japan Rugby League One Preview

Japan Rugby League One Preview

Division One – The Fuchu Wars: Episode II

Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo and Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath might both have qualified for next month’s Japan Rugby
League One semi-finals, but don’t be fooled.

West Tokyo supremacy matters to those associated with the clubs almost as much as a league title, so both sides will be going at it full throttle when they meet on Saturday at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium downtown in the Japanese capital.

While Brave Lupus captured the early honours, taking out the first derby of the season, that success counts for
little as the two teams meet again.

With a semi-final just three weeks away, Brave Lupus not having gone ‘back-to-back’ in the derby since 2010-11, and the potential for a further date in the knockouts, this game is arguably the most important either side has played so far this season.

Toshiba coach Todd Blackadder certainly betrayed its importance when he made eight changes to the side that squeaked past Mie Honda Heat last weekend, from that which had held on for a courageous draw against Kobelco Kobe Steelers the previous weekend.

With Richie Mo’unga away on bereavement leave, Takuro Matsunaga and Hayata Nakao have had a crack at leading the backline scheming, with Nakao getting the nod to start at number 10 again during the All Blacks’ continued absence.

On the gold side of the Fuchu ‘divide’, Sungoliath return to the site of last Friday’s thrilling draw with Shizuoka Blue

Revs having lost just twice – to runaway league leaders Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, and fellow semi-finalists Yokohama Canon Eagles – since falling to Brave Lupus.

Despite losing All Black backrower Sam Cane and Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe to injury, Suntory have qualified for their third consecutive league one semi-final with two weeks to spare, which reflects the consistency of their performance over the campaign.

Their three defeats – 19-26 to Toshiba, 20-24 to Panasonic, and 35-37 to Canon – have all been by margins showing that they were in the fight till the finish and could easily have wound up on the other side of the ledger.

Although the action at Fuchu takes centre stage in the penultimate weekend of the regular season, there are plenty of other subplots at play, with all Division One games on Saturday, as clubs jostle for a best place in the finishing order.

The Eagles face a Toyota Verblitz outfit smarting after last Saturday’s 33-point drubbing by the Wild Knights.

Things could hardly have gone better for Yokohama last weekend: star Springbok midfielder Jesse Kriel made a triumphant return from injury, while the win over Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars coupled with results elsewhere, saw their semi-final ticket stamped before the visit to Saitama in the last round.

There is still work to do though, to avoid a fourth-placed finish and a semi-final meeting with the Wild Knights, who made a mess of them 51-20 in the corresponding game last year. Ominously, Saitama also put 50 on the Eagles on the opening day of the new season.

Yokohama’s relationship with Toyota has typified the club’s recent change of fortunes, with wins in the last three meetings contributing to their repeat semi-final appearances, after they had lost seven of the previous eight.

With Sungoliath, who are just two points ahead, facing a difficult finish against Brave Lupus, and then the outgoing champions Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, a win over Verblitz might yet be enough to secure Yokohama third on the final standings.

After another disappointing season, Toyota could still claim the consolation of fifth – an improvement of one place on their finish last term – but they will have to make up two points on Kobelco Kobe Steelers to achieve it.

Although Hanazono Kintetsu Liners will be buoyed by Sunday’s opening win of the season, which was achieved a week earlier than they managed last term, the satisfaction will have been tempered by the knowledge of an upcoming visit to Kumagaya. Kintetsu lost 41-6 when they visited last season and have been beaten by the Wild Knights in their last 13 matches at all venues, by an average losing margin of 31.

As Super Rugby’s Chiefs discovered in The Cross Border Rugby, playing the Wild Knights is one of the tougher challenges in club rugby, with the Saitama-based side having incredibly won 85 of their last 88 league games, while another was drawn.

Even though Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans has taken the opportunity to rest a few of his frontliners before the semi-finals, Kintetsu’s task won’t be any easier, with the second-string desperate to give the boss food for thought as he assesses his semi-final combination.

It’s all turning black for the Rams
The weather has turned decidedly gloomy for Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo. After a strong finish last season, which gave rise to optimism for the current campaign, the Black Rams arrive at the second-from-last weekend of the regular season having lost their last five and staring the Replacement Battle in the face.

Australian coach Peter Hewat, who has been linked with a move to English club Leicester Tigers, would have been bemused by his side’s collapse on Sunday against Kintetsu during their most damaging defeat of the campaign. After jumping to a 14-3 lead, the Black Rams conceded 31 of the last 40 points, leaving their hopes of avoiding the post-season promotion/relegation series in tatters.

Standing in their way are the Dynaboars who, while only one place and nine points above Ricoh, have enjoyed their most successful season in League One, winning five matches.
A sixth will ensure they avoid last year’s fate, while finalising Ricoh’s participation in that series.

After taking the league by storm in the second half of his maiden season, when he scored 11 tries from nine matches, ex-England international Nathan Hughes has been below that level this time, not having scored in his last three.

Hewat needs a greater level of output from the 127-kilogram backrower, who will come off the bench, as well as Ricoh’s other key men. Like the two sides immediately below them, Verblitz and the Spears, the Kobe crew will finish the year pondering the what ifs of a season that showed promise but fell short of what they had made look possible.

Former Wallaby coach Dave Rennie will have learnt a lot from his maiden season in Japan, and he will be eager to ensure his side holds onto fifth, which still represents a significant improvement on the ninth achieved last year.

Saturday’s opponents, Shizuoka Blue Revs, will also be keen to finish strongly – both in their matches, and for the season – having drawn their last two, against Kubota and Suntory. The story of yet another season where the Blue Revs were ultra-competitive without developing the knack of winning the close ones – usually against higher ranked opposition – is being written, but there is still time left to change that narrative.

Although currently eighth, Shizuoka is unbeaten in the last five and look well placed to improve on the eighth-
place finish of last season.

Fifth is still possible, and a win against Kobe would go a long way towards it. Outgoing champions Kubota will also have their eye on that ranking though.

After ending Kobe’s semi-final hopes on Sunday, coach Frans Ludeke will be looking for his side to continue their momentum against a Heat outfit lifted by the return of Los Pumas backrower Pablo Matera, but with the Replacement Battle firmly on their mind.

Being able to field the international trio of Wales fullback Liam Williams, Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley and All Black hooker Dane Coles in the same starting line-up has been a rarity for Ludeke this term.

While Coles is missing again, after starting last week, Ludeke will be keen to make the most of having the other two playing, especially with a keenly awaited contest against local rivals Suntory still to come before their season

Divisions Two & Three – Now’s the moment for Kurita

These are nervous times in Akishima. The route to promotion via the Replacement Battle remains open, but with seven points separating Kurita Water Gush Akishima from third place’s current tenants, Mazda SkyActivs Hiroshima, only a winning double over the competition’s Honshu’s representatives will do.

Saturday sees act one when they visit a Chugoku Electric Power Red Regulions side that will be brimming with confidence after valiant recent performances against the division’s promotees, Hino Red Dolphins (26-26) and Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks (20-21). The Red Regulions will be aiming to sign off for the year with what would be their second win.

While Water Gush will fancy their chances, having won the last four in this rivalry, neither of this season’s wins was especially convincing, with a 39-24 result in January followed up by a 51-41 success a month later.

Both games were in Tokyo meaning the Red Regulions will enjoy home advantage for the first time, which increases the level of danger for the visitors: in their five home matches in Hiroshima to date, Chugoku has lost to Shimizu (21-22) by a point, drawn with Hino, beaten SkyActivs (22-21) and lost to their city rivals by five (20-25).

Only Shimizu, in the Red Regulions’ first home outing, has had a comfortable ride on their trip to Hiroshima, and the results show that Chugoku have improved significantly since that opening day defeat.

While Red Regulions have won just one of their last 18 league games, you must score plenty of points to beat them, with the Hiroshima-based outfit having exceeded 20 in each of their last seven matches, without having won any!

Recently crowned champions, Hino, have a date in Yamaguchi on Sunday when they visit a SkyActivs outfit that can confirm their place in the Replacement Battle with a win.

While Hino is unbeaten for the season and has won the last five against the SkyActivs at an average margin of 39 per win, the task of lifting again with no real consequence on their outcome could be a tricky one, especially against an opponent they have put 61 points on in each of their two meetings this year.

Their concession of four late tries to Water Gush last week after the title had been sewn up will offer Mazda encouragement that there might be a late season ‘chink’ in the Hino armour.

Wayne Pivac’s NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu will have spied a few of those in the Toyota Industries Corporation Shuttles Aichi’s performance at the start of the Placement Round, with a further defeat on Sunday confirming the latter a date with Division One’s 10th placed outfit in the upcoming Replacement Battle.

The Shuttles have been there before, and it didn’t end well, as the Dynaboars ran rings around them last term in a convincing win over the two legs of the series.

Well-beaten in the last two, conceding more than six tries both times, the Shuttles could be forgiven for feeling fatalistic about their promotion chances given their defensive form is hardly promising ahead of a Replacement Battle they lost by a combined aggregate of 102-35 last season.

After last year’s demotion, the ex-Wales coach will be reminding his players that the new campaign opens new opportunities, which a win over the Shuttles would begin, setting up a ranking’s showdown against Urayasu to determine who takes on Division One’s bottom-placed side.

Despite the Shuttles’ heavy 57-20 loss to D-Rocks last time, Pivac won’t have too many problems motivating his men: a quick reminder of how they blew a 17-3 halftime lead to lose 36-25 to Sunday’s opponents in December should do the trick.
The other Placement game of the weekend at the bottom end of the table brings Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex into the picture, as they face a Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves side that will be confirmed to play Division Three’s third placed side should they lose.

The Seawaves left their run too late against Red Hurricanes Osaka in last Friday’s series opener, but their performance in the 21-18 defeat will have given the ‘Iron Man of the North’ hope that all is not lost.

With the sides having won one each during the regular season – Voltex winning 20-11 in January, while Kamaishi returned the favour with a 28-11 success last month – a close contest can be expected, even though Voltex had won seven-straight against the Seawaves prior to their defeat in March.

Seiya the (try) scorer: Sungoliath winger Seiya Ozaki is flying, which could be bad news for Brave Lupus given the 28-year-old winger has a distinct taste for the Fuchu derby, having scored in four of the last five.

A try-scorer
when Suntory beat Toshiba in a semi-final of the maiden Japan Rugby League One two seasons ago, Ozaki was the leading try-scorer in the league last year with 18, three of which came in his side’s 40-34 win against Brave Lupus. He also crossed in a losing cause during Sungoliath’s narrow defeat in the first of this season’s west Tokyo arm wrestles.

After scoring a hattrick on opening day, Ozaki went through a quiet spell where he only managed three tries in nine appearances, but he is well and truly back in business now. With six tries in his last four, a spurt that has raised the Suntory winger to second equal on the individual try-scoring rankings (12), Ozaki is also the leading line-breaker in the league this season with 26. He represents a threat Toshiba must contain if they are to add a second derby to their season’s victory haul.

Not so gray for Glen: In a season that has bounced around between good and bad, Dynaboars coach Glen Delany has enjoyed great ‘pay’ out of his recruitment of Northampton Saints flyhalf James Grayson, whose 118 points so far has made a big difference to Mitsubishi’s win ratio.

Finishing above seasoned internationals Yu Tamura (104) and Beauden Barrett (87) would represent a fine achievement in the 25-year-old’s maiden season in Japan Rugby League One, while advertising to other (England) Premiership players the opportunities that await playing their rugby in the Far East.

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