Division One - Semi-Finals Revisited
Defending champions, Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, will need to hit the ground running as they open their
Japan Rugby League One campaign against Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in the capital this weekend.
Sunday’s clash between the first and fourth placed getters from last year is one half of a schedule that sees both
semi-finals reprised in the opening round, with Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Yokohama Canon Eagles also
meeting that afternoon.
The Spears beat a 14-man Sungoliath 24-18 as they advanced to the maiden final of the club’s history, going on to
topple the defending champion Wild Knights by two points in the decider.
While the dismissal of ex-Japan forward Hendrick Tui in the fifth minute didn’t help Sungoliath, the victory was
Kubota’s third of the season against the perennial Japanese heavyweights, and Frans Ludeke’s men will be looking
to continue that dominance against a likely rival for a place in the playoffs.
The Wild Knights and the Eagles played out a bizarre match on the penultimate weekend, with the Eagles leading
14-3 after 22 minutes, and 17-15 at halftime, before Springbok centre Jesse Kriel was sent off as they collapsed in
the second half and Saitama piled on 36 points to stroll to a 51-20 victory.
The seven-time Japanese champions conceded the title last year after having won the final Top League and the
maiden edition of Japan Rugby League.
They will start the third season as one of the favourites again, despite the influx of overseas stars at other clubs.
Saitama had 13 players in France with the Brave Blossoms, alongside the Rugby World Cup-winning Springbok
inside centre Damien de Allende, and the damaging Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete.
Yokohama boast two World Cup winners of their own in Kriel and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk
Stars to turn up the heat
The season gets underway on Saturday when Kobelco Kobe Steelers host newly promoted Mie Honda Heat.
Both are under new management, with Kobe’s Dave Rennie joining fellow former Wallaby coaches Robbie Deans
(Saitama) and two-time Australian boss Eddie Jones in Japan, Jones remaining associated with Suntory.
Alongside Rennie, Kobe have also welcomed the return of All Black second-rower Brodie Retallick, who will
captain the side after playing two seasons at the club earlier in his career.
Marquee signing Ardie Savea makes his debut, but away from his regular backrow starting position for the All
Blacks, reverting to the openside flank.
The recently named World Rugby Player of the Year has arrived on a one-year sabbatical where he will re-unite
with his former Hurricanes teammate, the wrecking ball ex-All Black inside centre, Ngane Laumape.
After scoring a hattrick in his second appearance for the club last term, Laumape played just twice more before
injury ended his season.
Heat have entrusted former Italian boss Kieran Crowley with the reins for their return to Division One, but he will
be without injured former Argentine skipper Pablo Matera for his maiden game.
Two of the remaining three matches on opening day feature sides with higher ambitions, after some headline
making recruitment following mid-table finishes last season.
Sixth placed Toyota Verblitz hand debuts to the All Black halves combination of scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flyhalf
Beauden Barrett, with the latter returning to Japan after he finished as the leading point-scorer in the final Top
League three years ago, while based at Suntory.
After being used largely as a fullback by All Black coaches Steve Hansen, and his successor Ian Foster, during the
last five years, Barrett has been returned to the number 10 jersey by Hansen in his role as Toyota’s Director of
Hansen has made a habit of big-name signings since he took over at Verblitz, but grabbing the two All Black
centurions represents his biggest heist yet, with the pair joining former World Player of the Year and Rugby World
Cup final Player of the Match Pieter Steph du Toit, and Japanese Rugby World Cup skipper Kazuki Himeno, on the
The glamour new signings raise the stakes for Verblitz, who finished sixth last term, 11 points behind fifth-placed
Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo.
Toyota hosts a Ricoh Black Rams outfit featuring Japan’s star man from the Rugby World Cup, Amato Fakatava,
along with ex-England backrower Nathan Hughes, who scored twice in the corresponding match last season when
Verblitz needed an after the siren conversion to get secure the win.
Is Mo’unga the main man?
Hansen’s former captain during his time coaching with Canterbury and the Crusaders, Todd Blackadder, has not
been idle either in the off-season, picking up All Black flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and backrower Shannon Frizell, who
will both start as Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo hosts Shizuoka Blue Revs.
It was Blackadder who gave a young Mo’unga his first shot at Super Rugby, while in charge of the Crusaders, and
the seven-time Super Rugby winner will be out to repay his old mentor’s faith, having signed on a three-year-deal
which has the potential to take Brave Lupus to the next level.
Toshiba’s All Black pair had a taste of what is to come when they appeared in the club’s final two pre-season
‘training’ games, but the Blue Revs promise to be a tricky assignment first-up, having landed a big fish of their own
in the form of Tonga’s ex-All Black fullback Charles Piutau.
Fresh off representing his country of origin at the World Cup, after previously having appeared 17 times for New
Zealand, Piutau joins an under-rated outfit that last year ended Panasonic’s five-year, 47 match, unbeaten run.
New coach Yuichiro Fujii will bring Springbok backrower Kwagga Smith and Maori All Black scrumhalf Bryn Hall off
the bench as he plots to rectify the Blue Revs’ habit of letting games slip, which has seen 11 of their 32 games in
League One lost by 10 points or less, five of which were dropped by the concession of points in the 75th minute or
There have also been two draws.