Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round Six Preview

Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round Six Preview

Division One – Toyota Remembers

In a last season lacking in fulfilment for Toyota Verblitz, one afternoon stands alone as its’ darkest moment.
It involved Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, making Saturday’s re-match personal, as Verblitz seek to derail the runaway train that Todd Blackadder’s men have become.
Although Brave Lupus narrowly failed to reach the semi-finals last term, their 63-25 victory over Verblitz was one of the more remarkable results from the season, especially as they only had one point to spare in the second-
round clash between the sides, where Toyota would have prevailed had utility back Tiaan Falcon not missed an 84th minute conversion in the 19-18 loss.
The frustration of each result is sure to fuel Verblitz this weekend.
Both sides have strengthened significantly since, with All Black backrower Shannon Frizell arguably the signing of the season so far, having scored five tries from his first five outings in the Toshiba jersey.
International teammate Richie Mo’unga has also made an impression, scoring his maiden try in Toshiba’s 40-12 win over Mie Honda Heat two weeks ago, which took his point’s tally for the season to 54 from five outings.
Verblitz has had good value out of their star signings too, with All Black scrumhalf Aaron Smith picking up two tries, while his test halves partner Beauden Barrett has contributed 30 points from four appearances, despite not handling the kicking duties fulltime.
Barrett returns after missing the win over Hanazono Kintetsu Liners in the last round, while Smith, who only played the first quarter of that match, is on the bench, backing up rising Brave Blossoms star Kenta Fukuda.
Blackadder has benched ex-All Black centre Seta Tamanivalu, who scored two tries in last year’s contest, with his starting place going to the former Maori All Black Rob Thompson, who will be highly motivated against his ex- teammates, having been in the Toyota midfield during last year’s game.

Victory for Toshiba would see the club emulate the achievement of each of the previous two seasons where the side strung together six wins in a row, which helped Brave Lupus to the semi-finals in the maiden Japan Rugby
League One, before narrowly missing out last term.
One of Toshiba’s victories came against Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, who will be hoping they are back on track after a thrilling 38-34 win over Kobelco Kobe Steelers two weeks ago, which lifted the defending champions to seventh on the championship standings, six points behind the fourth-placed Yokohama Canon Eagles.
Both teams will be in action in The Cross Border Rugby on February 10, with the Spears facing the (Auckland) Blues, while the Eagles host the Gallagher (Waikato) Chiefs.
Kubota will again be without top point-scorer and Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley, when they play Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo.
The Eagles, who are three points in front of fifth-placed Toyota Verbitz, also have injury worries, having suffered a major blow with their Springbok duo, scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and centre Jesse Kriel, both sidelined by potentially long-term injuries.
De Klerk has had knee surgery while Kriel has had an operation on a broken thumb.
It is not known if either of the players will return before the end of the current league season.
The news couldn’t have come at a worse time ahead of a date with a Kobe side smarting after three straight defeats on Saturday.
After opening confidently with consecutive wins, Dave Rennie’s men have been close, but not close enough, in the time since, losing matches by seven, eight and four points respectively.
Black Rams have lost four of their first five, which will be of concern to coach Peter Hewat as they line up Kubota, while discipline will have been the key ‘work on’ for Hanazono Kintetsu Liners before their engagement with Shizuoka Blue Revs.
Still to register a win, Kintetsu head to Yamaha Stadium as the most penalised team in the league, with 76 conceded, despite having played one game less than four of their rivals.
This includes the fellow winless Heat, who have been penalised 68 times.

Divisions Two & Three – After the Storm

There are just two matches in the lower divisions this weekend with Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi looking to brew up a storm of their own after lightening strikes curtailed their last outing against Urayasu D-Rocks in the second half of the contest two weeks ago.
Urayasu were awarded the points, as they led 10-7 at the time, and the result allowed them to depose the Shuttles at the top of the table. With Urayasu not in action again until February 3 when they host their ‘little’ brother from the NTT Communications ‘stable’, Red Hurricanes Osaka, the Shuttles will regain top position if they beat Kyuden Voltex.
A quirk of the draw means Voltex have not played for four weeks after gaining their first win of the campaign against Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves on January 6.
The sole match in Division Three is the first Hiroshima derby of the season, with Mazda SkyActivs Hiroshima looking for their third win of the campaign against Chugoku Electric Power Red Regulions, after bowling Kurita Water Gush Akishima and Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks.
Should the SkyActivs prevail against their winless local rivals, they will have equalled their total number of wins from last term after just four matches this time, although with the Red Regulions having defaulted their match with Hino Red Dolphins last week due to a Covid outbreak at the club, the SkyActivs could yet tie last year’s tally in unfortunate circumstances.
The remainder of the current round in Divisions Two and Three will be completed while Division One is paused for The Cross Border Rugby, on February 3,4,10 and 11.

Too late for Toshiba: With invitations to The Cross Border Rugby based on performances last term, Todd Blackadder’s Toshiba Brave Lupus are missing the ‘party’, despite being one of the form teams so far this year. Brave Lupus would have qualified had The Cross Border Rugby started a year earlier, having featured in the semi-finals where they lost to Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, but fell short by finishing fifth last term. Returning to the top four is this year’s goal, and the recruitment of Richie Mo’unga and Shannon Frizell has already suggested they could be the key point of difference. With the All Black pair and their well-performed teammates watching on from the sidelines, the Blues and Gallagher Chiefs might just have dodged a bullet, especially given Cross Border Rugby attendees Suntory and Kubota have already been taken down by Brave Lupus this year.

Lacking in Steel: The Steelers might be the moniker of the Kobelco Kobe club, but recent history hasn’t lived up to the name. Kobe conceded 128 points across its last three matches, all of which ended in defeat, with the run including a try in referee’s time in the four-point loss to Kubota. Their current defensive frailty is not an isolated turn of events, having been a major issue last season as well, when the ninth-placed Kobe had the fourth worst defence in the league, conceding 569 points at an average of 36 per game. While Japan Rugby League One is known for its high scoring, statistics like this are not going to get a team into the semi-finals.

The five international tens: Three internationally capped test flyhalves could take the field when Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi take on Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex on Sunday, with the nomadic Englishman Freddie Burns steering the ship for the Shuttles, while All Black Tom Taylor and Scot Phil Burleigh run the cutter for Voltex. The trio are part of an ever-increasing cadre of former test 10s plying their trade in the lower divisions, with dual New Zealand/Samoa international Lima Sopoaga a new arrival at Shimizu Koto Blue Sharks, while England’s Piers Francis has similarly joined Kurita Water Gush Akishima. Teams are showing by the level of their recruitment that they have higher ambitions, raising the stakes in both grades.

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