Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round Five Preview

Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round Five Preview

Division One – Sungoliath Aiming to Avoid Feeling Blue

They did it last season to Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights.
They did it again just before Christmas to Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay.
Can Shizuoka Blue Revs now ‘do it’ to Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in the feature match on Saturday’s menu in Japan Rugby League One?
Having begun their climb up the ladder by beating the defending champions, the Blue Revs now find themselves sixth, just three points outside of the semi-final positions.
One of the key features of the ‘jig saw’ Shizuoka seem to have solved revolves around their goalkicking, whose limitations last term were illustrated by scrumhalf Bryn Hall, who had barely kicked during his long career in New Zealand, finding himself lead off kicker on several occasions.
It was no fault of the former Maori All Black that this did not go well, but the form of flyhalf Kenta Iemura, who last weekend became the first player in the league to surpass 50 points for the campaign, seems to have addressed the weakness.
With Springbok star Kwagga Smith leading the way, already having picked up four tries, and the influence of prized recruit Charles Piutau growing every week, the Blue Revs are in good shape as they line up third-placed Sungoliath, whose players have ambitions driving them on two fronts.
As well as league performance, the Suntory cast have just 160 minutes of playing time left to claim a place in the side’s match day squad for the Cross Border clash against the (Auckland) Blues from Super Rugby on February 3.
These minutes are especially important for 22-year-old flyhalf Mikiya Takamoto as the club awaits the arrival of the Argentine star Nicolas Sanchez.

With Suntory left undermanned in the key position after the loss of their off-season recruit from Wales, Gareth Anscombe, Takamoto has stepped up, collecting 49 points from his first four appearances in the competition.
Players from Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Yokohama Canon Eagles may also have Cross Border selection in the back of their minds as they confront Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars and Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo respectively.

Stopping the Rot

The season might still be in its infancy, but the stakes are steadily rising for Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay and Kobelco Kobe Steelers as they meet in Kobe on Sunday.
With both having lost their last two, neither can afford to fall further behind the pacesetters, especially having set off on their respective journeys with high hopes.
The arrival of ex-Wallabies and Chiefs coach Dave Rennie, the return of All Black second rower Brodie Retallick, the acquisition of recently crowned World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea, as well as the service of a now fully fit ex-All Black midfielder Ngane Laumape, was all intended to fuel a new beginning for the 2018 Top League champions.  But it has been hard going so far.
Narrow losses to Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo as well as Sungoliath have highlighted the depth of this year’s competition, while underlining the size of the task ahead of Kobe as they seek to break into the semi-finals for the first time since their championship success.
The competitiveness of this season’s competition won’t have been lost on the Spears as well, with the veteran South African coach Frans Ludeke having seen his side fall to three defeats from their first four, the sole win achieved against the struggling Mie Honda Heat.
Losing Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley before last weekend’s tie with Brave Lupus didn’t help, but the narrow margin of defeat (four points) against an opponent who is simply flying suggests an upturn in fortunes is not far away.
Kubota boast the third best defensive record in the league, but this will be tested by Kobe, who are just a point behind Saitama, in terms of the best attacking figures.
Sunday’s other matches see winless Hanazono Kintetsu Liners host Toyota Verblitz, while Mie Honda Heat travels to Brave Lupus.

The return of Quade Cooper didn’t quite go according to plan last weekend, and Kintetsu coach Shogo Mukai will be hoping the Wallaby star can find his best as the side searches for its first win of the campaign.
After their dramatic collapse at Saitama, Verblitz are in the same position as all their fellow mid-table residents, needing to win to make sure they don’t fall too far behind the leaders.
This is something that has derailed several seasons recently for Toyota, with the memories of last term especially acute when they gave themselves virtually no chance after dropping four of their first five matches.

Divisions Two & Three – Can the Shuttles Reverse the Trend

It wasn’t a happy match up for Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi last term.
Three times, they played Urayasu D-Rock.

Three times they lost.
Collectively through those outings, the Shuttles conceded 145 points, while scoring just 40.
Why will this weekend be any different?
It might not be, but there are several factors heading into the match between the top-of-the-table side and second-placed D-Rocks that offer encouragement for last seasons conquered outfit.
The return of ex-England flyhalf Freddie Burns has already had a big impact for the club, with the former (Otago) Highlander bringing his best form back with him after a season in Super Rugby.
A vital cog in the Shuttles’ promotion campaign two years ago, where he contributed 133 points, Burns has picked up from where he left off, collecting 21 from the Shuttles’ last outing against Red Hurricanes Osaka, and 44 overall.
As well a his goalkicking, the 33-year-old has added potency to an attack that has scored 159 points, while also bringing an organisation and calmness under pressure that has been a key factor in the opening three wins.
The leadership of another Englishman, second rower James Gaskill, is also showing through, driving a pack that is dominating its opponents, providing Burns and company with the opportunity to express themselves.
Urayasu’s opening day defeat by NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu suggests a chink in the Division Two champions’ armour that didn’t appear to exist last term.
While D-Rocks recovered with sizable wins over Kyuden Voltex and Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves, the performance in the latter lacked conviction at times, with a late flurry of points providing a flattering scoreline that did no justice to the gallant home side’s performance.
With no Samu Kerevi for the game due to injury, and dual international Israel Folau still unsighted in the new season, Uraysau’s South African coach Johan Ackermann has a few challenges on his hands at present.
Kerevi’s absence denies the opportunity for siblings to oppose each other, with Samu’s elder brother Joshua starting on the left wing for the Shuttles.
Although Division Two will not be determined on Saturday, a win by the Shuttles will shake things up a bit more, while a loss could see the weekend end with three teams boasting identical records at the top end of the table.
The third of those is the Green Rockets who will be heavily favoured against Red Hurricanes Osaka.

While Wayne Pivac’s men suffered a reality check following their excellent win over Urayasu, when reeled in by the Shuttles after establishing a commanding 22-3 lead, the former Wales coach got them back on track with a 41- 24 success against Kyuden Voltex last time.
He has since had two weeks over the New Year’s break to further imprint his methods on his new charges.
After opening confidently with two wins, Matt Cockbain’s newly promoted Red Hurricanes received a rude shock as to the realities of life in the higher grade when floored 71-12 by the Shuttles on Christmas Eve.
A moral boosting performance is desperately required, especially with the next outing a date against their ‘stablemates’ from the NTT era, Urayasu.
Division Three sees the Mazda SkyActivs visit Shimizu Koto Blue Sharks, having flopped at home last weekend against a rampant Hino Red Dolphins.
The home side will have to manage without big name off-season recruit Lima Sopoaga who remains on the sidelines after being forced from the field during their round three win over Chugoku Electric Power Red Regulions by injury.

The section’s other contest is top versus bottom as Hino take on Red Regulions in a game the competition front-runners will be expecting to achieve a maximum return from against their still winless rivals.

A Bledisloe Affair: It’s doubtful Quade Cooper and Will Genia would know how many times they were opposed by Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith in the test arena. For the record, the two halves combinations – perhaps surprisingly given three of the four have played in excess of 100 tests, while Cooper has played 84 – have only been direct starting protagonists once in Bledisloe Tests, when New Zealand won 29-9 at Wellington in 2016. Even so, their first match up in Japan adds an extra dimension to a contest that is high on motivation for both teams, but for different reasons. After narrowly losing to the Dynaboars on opening day, Kintetsu have shipped 156 points in the last three rounds, with the 27-point loss to the Black Rams the most disappointing, given Ricoh was also winless before the game. Breaking that cycle, at least by being competitive, is critical given Verblitz are the start of a run for Kintetsu that consists of Blue Revs, Spears, Brave Lupus and Sungoliath in the next four rounds. Toyota are two from four but will probably feel that they should have four wins, having lost to Yokohama by two before surrendering a 27-3 advantage at Kumagaya last weekend. With a showdown against Brave Lupus, which always carries plenty of spice, a week away, a convincing display is required.

Return of ‘the Lood’: January 13 promises to be a significant moment in the career of Springbok second row Lood de Jager as he makes his return to Japan Rugby League One after being sidelined since August by a medical condition. The 31-year-old, who featured in a training game for the Saitama Wild Knights development side last weekend, was forced to miss the recent Rugby World Cup due to the condition, denying him the opportunity to attend his third tournament after being a part of the 2015, and victorious 2019, teams. De Jager played his most recent top-level game for the Springboks against New Zealand in Auckland at the end of July. The 59-cap South African, who is in his second season in Japan with the Wild Knights, has appeared for the club on 14 occasions, most recently in last year’s final.

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