Japan Rugby League One: Round 11 preview

Japan Rugby League One: Round 11 preview

– Kansai calling for Kintetsu

Fresh off their 10th loss in a row, and from a match they were expected to win against Mie Honda Heat, the last thing Hanazono Kintetsu Liners probably needed was the Kansai derby, which is traditionally the biggest game of their regular season.

Whether it turns out to be a rallying point for the rest of their season or not, the derby is their next assignment, as Kobelco Kobe Steelers roll out the welcome mat for their neighbours on Sunday, looking for an immediate riposte after last week’s loss to the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights.

Dave Rennie’s men fired a few shots at the unbeaten league leaders, and the 28-18 defeat has certainly not dimmed their status as a genuine title contender, but the ex-Wallaby coach will be expecting a response from his
side against an opponent his players know will be supercharged as they try and repeat last year’s derby upset.

Kintetsu’s dramatic 34-33 win, clinched with a converted try in the final play of the game, was even more memorable for it being the side’s only win of the regular season, at their 15th attempt, while also snapping a
seven-match losing streak in the battle for Kansai superiority.

Ominously for the underdogs, the Kobe they face is a vastly different beast from that they bettered last term. Rennie’s arrival has changed the game. So too, has the presence of World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea, who has wowed crowds in Japan with his combination of pace, skill, and strength, and whose importance to his country was illustrated last week when new

All Black coach Scott Robertson pitched up at Kumagaya to check on his star backrower’s progress. It has been impressive. Savea has beaten 47 defenders with his ball carries this season, the most of any forward, while he has also crossed the gainline more often than any other player in the league.

As good as Savea has been though, arguably the biggest factor in Kobe’s rise from last year’s disappointing ninth placed finish, has been the performance of former the Super Rugby flyhalf, Bryn Gatland.
The ex (Waikato) Chief, who is the son of Wales coach Warren Gatland, is the top point-scorer in the league, but has also performed with confidence in attack, relishing the license to take control.

The Kansai derby is the final offering of a fascinating 11th round, with Saturday seeing the semi-final aspirations of Toyota Verblitz and Yokohama Canon Eagles put to the test as they visit Shizuoka Blue Revs and Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath respectively.

Seventh-placed Verblitz, with their star-studded playing roster, would normally have been expected to comfortably take care of a Shizuoka side positioned one below them, but worrying more about avoiding the
Replacement Battle than they are reaching the semi-finals.

But as last week showed, when they coughed up a 21-point lead against Sungoliath, nothing is certain where Verblitz are concerned, and a sixth loss of the campaign would just about be a death knell to any hopes the Steve Hansen-coached side had of making the playoffs.

Although Toyota has won the last three matches against the Blue Revs, all three have been by 10 points or less, and Shizuoka had dominated the rivalry before that, winning seven matches in a row.
The teams boast the two-leading try-scorers in the competition, with Malo Tuitama having scored 12 on the Shizuoka wing, while Taichi Takahasi has 10, plying his trade at either wing or fullback for Verblitz.

Five points ahead of Toyota on the point’s table, Yokohama Canon Eagles are fifth. They are currently tied with Kobe on the standings, but have begun to run out of steam, losing three of their last
five, after having won four-in-a-row between rounds two and five.

Having missed the opportunity to go above the Steelers when they spectacularly collapsed in the last three minutes of their match with Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, the Eagles will need no reminding of defeats in
similar circumstances in the corresponding regular season matches with Suntory last term.

The Eagles were unable to beat a Sungoliath side that played an hour with 14 men during a 32-23 loss, before being edged out by a late try to lose 11-9 in the return fixture.

Having lost just twice so far – to the two teams rated above them on the standings – the Suntory ‘machine’ is purring along nicely, despite having the disruption of injuries to their star recruits, Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe and All Black backrower Sam Cane.

Kolbe returns after missing the last three matches, but such is the level of belief within the group, Sungoliath still overcame several obstacles to break Verblitz hearts during a dramatic contest at Toyota Stadium.
They continue to fly under the radar, although performances like last week indicate the size of the task the Eagles are going to have at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.

Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo face a similarly tall order against their cross-town rivals, Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, but they were troublesome for Todd Blackadder’s inform side last term, missing a long-range penalty attempt two minutes from fulltime in their 12-10 loss in March, after having asked plenty of questions during a 17-7 defeat on Christmas Eve.

Any outcome other than participation in the promotion/relegation series seems unlikely for the 10th-placed Ricoh now, but the Black Rams can still have an influence on the make-up and finishing order of the semi-finalists, as they also face the Wild Knights, Eagles and Verblitz, among their remaining regular season fixtures.

It’s now or never for Kubota

Friday night brings together the two teams that fought out last year’s grand final but in circumstances that are very different, with the defending champion Spears battling to keep their season afloat, while the Wild Knights
have been largely untested in putting together 10-straight wins.

Kubota’s cause hasn’t been helped by injuries, with last year’s leading point-scorer, Wallaby Bernard Foley, sidelined since round three, try-scoring wonder winger Haruto Kida also out of action, while each of Wales
fullback Liam Williams and All Black hooker Dane Coles have missed the last two weeks.

Coles returns against the Wild Knights. The Spears’ nail-biting 17-15 victory in last year’s decider snapped an incredible 14-game losing sequence in this rivalry that dated back to 2006 and included three semi-finals as well as the corresponding regular season match last term, which the Wild Knights won 30-15 after having trailed at halftime.

Of more immediate concern for coach Frans Ludeke is a sequence which has seen his side lose all four of the matches they have hosted this season. By contrast, the Wild Knights have won their last 19 away games with an average winning margin of 25 points.

Mie Honda Heat are already in preparation mode for the Replacement Battle, but last Sunday’s gutsy 20-19 victory over Kintetsu was a major boost as Kieran Crowley’s men line up the remainder of the programme, starting with what they will see as a winnable fixture on Sunday against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars.

Heat have won seven of their last eight against the Dynaboars and retain many of the same playing staff as those who fronted for the last two, although both games were tight as Honda got home by one and two points
respectively. After impressive back-to-back wins over the Blue Revs and the Spears, the last two weekends have not gone so
well for Glen Delaney’s side.
Heavy defeats by Kobe and Brave Lupus have revived memories of last term where, after at one stage having
topped the league, the Dynaboars lost their last six to tumble into the Replacement Battle.
Although they were untroubled by Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi in that series, avoidance of a repeat
appearance is a priority, which makes a win against Honda non-negotiable.

Divisions Two & Three – Shuttles in last gasp saloon

The Toyota Industries Corporation Shuttles Aichi are running out of road. After last weekend’s disappointing defeat by Urayasu D-Rocks, the Shuttles must now repeat their 36-25 victory
over NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu from the second weekend or their path to the Division Two silverware is closed.

The Shuttles had looked the real deal in the earlier contest, giving a bewildered Green Rockets outfit the runaround as they overturned a 22-3 deficit in a blistering last 35 minutes during which they scored five tries.
While it was an effective statement at the time, the lightening strike that put paid to their hopes of doing the same to D-Rocks a few weeks later, also appears to have zapped their confidence.

Although they outclassed Kyushu Electric Power Voltex comfortably the following weekend, the Shuttles have since laboured to narrow victories over Red Hurricanes Osaka, as well as the Voltex, before losing by five on

Adding to their worries, the Green Rockets have built up an irresistible momentum since they stripped for the
earlier meeting.

Since that loss, ex-Wales coach Wayne Pivac has presided over a six-match winning run, where they have only once been held to less than 40 points and have exceeded 60 three times.

The latest of those was in last weekend’s re-arranged match with Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves, where the
Green Rockets were made to work in the first half, twice trailing, before a 35-point second half fuelled a 63-26

Namibian flyhalf Tiaan Swanepoel has been central to the Green Rockets’ charge, with just one player in the division having totalled more than the recent Rugby World Cup attendee’s 73 points.

That player just happens to be his opposite number at the Shuttles, ex-England man Freddie Burns, although in keeping with his team’s fortunes, his point production has slowed since he gathered 44 from the opening three weekends, having added just 42 in the following five.

The player who dominates the match up of the international flyhalves will have a big part to play in the outcome, especially if it comes down to goal-kicking.
D-Rocks will be hoping it does, and no try-scoring bonus point is claimed by the winner, as Johan Ackerman’s team hunt for a maximum point return of their own against a Voltex side that has only one point to spare from
the last-placed Seawaves.

Kamaishi’s hopes of avoiding finishing bottom of the regular season pile likely rest on this weekend when they host a Red Hurricanes side who have not won since mid-December, losing six-in-a-row.

The second of the two wins the Red Hurricanes have achieved came when hosting the Seawaves, although it took a penalty goal by ex-Super Rugby flyhalf Bryce Hegarty to get them home 27-25, with Saturday’a hosts ahead by a point as the game entered referee’s time.

While they didn’t win, Kamaishi’s performance was arguably the most courageous across the entire league this season, given they had to play nearly all the match with 14 men after veteran backrower Sam Henwood was red carded in the fifth minute.

While Hino Red Dolphins and Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks appear certain to gain automatic promotion,thanks to the competition’s expansion with three new teams entered for 2025, the Division Three title remains to be decided.

With a nine-point advantage, it’s hard to see Hino being denied the prize, although with five matches still to be played, the Blue Sharks could at least make the finale interesting with a win in Sunday’s re-match, especially as the pair are slated to meet again on the final weekend of the season. It’s a big ask though.

Hino’s 30-16 win on the opening weekend was their third in a row against the Blue Sharks, with an average winning margin of 28 in those games. With a shot at promotion via the Replacement Battle up for grabs for the section’s third-placed finisher, there is plenty on the line as Mazda SkyActivs Hiroshima host Kurita Water Gush Akishima.

SkyActivs beat Water Gush 30-15 on opening day, and a similar result on Saturday would make it difficult for the Tokyo-based side to overhaul their rivals, even though they meet again on the final weekend of the regular

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