Japan Rugby League One: Round 10 preview

Japan Rugby League One: Round 10 preview

Division One – Spears on a Knife-Edge

Time is running out for Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay. While the status of their title defence is not terminal yet, the defending champions’ slide down the championship
table over the last two rounds has left the side seven points outside of the top four, with their playoff hopes hanging by an increasingly thin thread.

Having their international trio of Welshman Liam Williams, Wallaby Bernard Foley and All Black Dane Coles all sidelined by injury as this critical juncture is adding to the headaches for Spears coach Frans Ludeke.

Although the plight of tomorrow night’s opponents, Yokohama Canon Eagles, is not so desperate, a loss for them would be a missed opportunity, especially on a weekend where first on the table will play fourth, while third
meets sixth.

A late scoring burst gave Kubota a bonus point in last weekend’s loss to Toyota Verblitz, but its’ significance will only be judged retrospectively, especially given the Spears’ tough run home; a schedule which includes their
grand final rivals from last term, Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights (currently first), along with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath (third) and Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo (second).

The weekend has important ramifications for the top of the table, but it also contains some key matches for the bottom, as Hanazono Kintetsu Liners and Mie Honda Heat meet to chase their first win, while Ricoh Black Rams
Tokyo host Shizuoka Blue Revs in a game that could also have a significant influence on post season play.

Having looked Replacement Battle-bound for much of the campaign, the Black Rams gave their hopes of avoiding the end-of-season relegation lottery a lift by beating Honda.

Even though the 24-14 win was not totally convincing, being held scoreless in the second half, the four points gained from their second win closed the Black Rams to within five of a Shizuoka side whose campaign appears to be spinning out of control. Having suffered a massive blow after the season-ending injury to captain Kwagga Smith, the magnitude of the backrower’s absence is becoming apparent.

The Blue Revs, who still have the dual All Black/Tonga representative Charles Piutau and Maori All Black Bryn Hall on the roster, have won just once since their Springbok talisman was scratched from the remainder of their
campaign. The win, in the first game after the 30-year-old’s exit, came against winless Kintetsu.

Since then, Shizuoka has conceded 132 points in three games, form that has Replacement Battle ‘candidate’ written all over it. Kintetsu and Honda are unlikely to escape that fate, but a win against the other when they meet on Sunday, will do the world of good to team morale, while also providing potential to put pressure on the sides immediately above them.

Having pushed each of Brave Lupus and Sungoliath close for periods during their last two outings, Kintetsu will fancy themselves, even though Heat produced their best defensive effort of the season last weekend, holding an opponent to under 30 points for the first time this term. Wallaby coach versus Wallaby coach

Defence has been an issue for Kobe, so Dave Rennie will have taken even more satisfaction from his troops holding free-scoring Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars to 14 points last week, than he will have
about the 43 the Steelers scored. Like Honda, the performance was their best defensively thus far, and they picked a great time to do it, in advance of a date with the league’s highest-scoring outfit, Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights.

While Rennie and Saitama coach Robbie Deans haven’t coached against each other since the early days of their respective careers in the New Zealand national provincial championship, the pair share several achievements, and similar coaching philosophy.

Both have won each of New Zealand’s domestic competition and Super Rugby, where they share seven titles between them (Deans 5, Rennie 2), as well as experience coaching at test level with the Wallabies.

They also place a big emphasis on player leadership, backing their senior players to drive decision making, while encouraging the team’s more junior members to express themselves.
It’s a method Deans has successfully employed in Japan, to the extent that he has been associated with five titles since he joined the Wild Knights, including the final Top League and the inaugural Japan Rugby League One.

Although new to Japan, Rennie appears to have adapted to the different, fast-paced, style of play in the league, along with the different communications requirements in his new environment.
This has shown in how Kobe rebounded, after consecutive defeats against Toshiba, Suntory, and Kubota, by recording three straight wins to climb to fourth on the championship table.
They are still 13 points behind Saitama though, with the league leaders having been as dominant this term, as at any time during their previous title-winning runs.

Only Suntory and Toshiba have challenged the Wild Knights, with the latter staying in last week’s contest until the final moments when Saitama’s fourth try confirmed their ninth-straight win.
Traditional rivals Sungoliath, who got to within four of Saitama, face a tricky assignment of their own visiting a Toyota Verblitz outfit desperate to build on their morale boosting win over Kubota, which attended to the scars
created by the previous week’s disastrous 42-point second half collapse against Kobe.

While Sungoliath’s progress has not been disrupted by the recent loss of their international stars Cheslin Kolbe and Sam Cane to injury, the home side has three of their four big names on deck: All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith as well as Brave Blossoms skipper Kazuki Himeno. Verblitz will also bring the confidence of last year’s 27-20 win from the corresponding game, which kick started a
late season run that saw them win four of their last six to gain a sixth-placed finish.

The Dynaboars will also draw on recent experience when they face Brave Lupus on Sunday, having edged their rivals 23-19 at last season’s first meeting.
Toshiba did exact a crushing revenge, thumping Sagamihara 52-19 in the return contest, but the damage had been done, with the three points dropped from the first meeting having a significant impact on the failure by
Brave Lupus to make the semi-finals.

Despite coming off a 36-24 loss last weekend, which brought an end to an eight-game winning run, Brave Lupus coach Todd Blackadder will have seen plenty of good in their performance against the competition’s benchmark.

especially in how they handled adversity in the second half, when they pegged the Wild Knights back on the
scoreboard despite being reduced to 14 men due to Seta Tamanivalu’s yellow card.
Even so, the Dynaboars pose a banana skin-like threat, having been impressive in a three-match run which saw a
two-point loss to Suntory followed by wins over Shizuoka and Kubota, before a disappointing 29-point loss to
Sagamihara coach Glen Delaney will be reinforcing to his side that they are better than what they showed last
time, which their return illustrates, having already won as many games this term as they did in the entirety of the
2022-23 competition when just four wins condemned them to the jeopardy associated with the Replacement

Division Two– One Step to the Title

The Division Two title will not be decided when Toyota Industries Corporation Shuttles Aichi host Urayasu D-Rocks on Sunday, but the winner will take a major step towards the silverware as the pair complete the third from last round of the section’s regular season. Urayasu gained an edge after a 10-7 win in their first meeting, which was cut short by a lightning strike that struck early in the second half.

Unfortunately play had to be abandoned due to safety concerns which resulted in D-Rocks being awarded the victory due to their being in the lead at the time. Although a frustrating way to be denied, the outcome was not ruinous to the Shuttles’ title aspirations.

They are only two points behind and would move into title-favouritism with a win in the return date. D-Rocks will have similar ideas, although Wayne Pivac’s NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu have the opportunity for a
say on the outcome as well, playing both sides above them in the three matches that remain.

While the end of the round robin will decide the section champions, as the already confirmed top three, the trio will meet again in an additional round of ‘placement’. These matches, in effect a mini round robin, will determine their playing order for the upcoming two-legged winner take all Replacement Battle against Division One’s bottom three sides.
There are no games in Division Three this weekend.

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