Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round Four Official Preview

Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round Four Official Preview

Division One - Cross Border Build Up Continues

The return of Japan Rugby League One after the New Year’s break sees the competition’s four participants in next month’s Cross-Border matches against the New Zealand Super Rugby sides step up their preparations with challenging assignments.

Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath will face the (Auckland) Blues in the Japanese capital on the first weekend of Cross-Border on February 3, while Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights welcome last year’s Super Rugby runners-up,

Gallagher (Waikato) Chiefs, to their Kumagaya fortress on the same afternoon.
Japan Rugby League One champions Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay are in action the following weekend, tackling the Chiefs, while Yokohama Canon Eagles will test their strength against the Blues, who made last year’s Super Rugby semi-final.
The Wild Knights, who have lost just once at Kumagaya since 2019, continue their build up on Saturday with a tricky test against a rejuvenated Toyota Verblitz.
Although on the wrong end of a narrow loss to Yokohama on Match Day Two, Verblitz have shown that with the addition of the All Black duo of flyhalf Beauden Barrett and halfback Aaron Smith, they can be a title threat, after finishing a disappointing sixth last term.
The Wild Knights have taken maximum points from their three outings to start the season, which includes a thumping win over Yokohama on the opening weekend.

While Wallaby star Marika Koroibete has been named on the bench, the Wild Knights still have Rugby World Cup-winning Springbok centre Damien de Allende in their starting XV, alongside 10 members of Japan’s squad from that tournament in their match day 23.

Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath have a similarly difficult assignment against another of the big improvers from last term, Kobelco Kobe Steelers, who will be looking to get back on track after suffering their first defeat of the season against Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo on Christmas Eve.
Scoring points aren’t a problem for Dave Rennie’s men at the moment; even though they were defeated, Kobe scored 39 last time, and they are currently the competition’s leading point-scorers with 149.
The match brings New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup skipper Sam Cane, who starts on the back of the scrum for Suntory, up against his former Chiefs mentor Rennie, as well as recent All Black teammates Brodie Retallick and Ardie Savea.
It will be interesting to see how the Steelers’ razor blade fares against a Suntory side boasting the league’s second meanest defence, and who are aided by Rennie’s Wallabies successor Eddie Jones, who is a club advisor.
Saturday afternoon’s third match in Division One sees Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo and Hanazono Kintetsu Liners chase their first win when they collide in Tokyo.
Former England backrower Nathan Hughes, who was a try-scorer in each of the first two games of the season, has been reinstated in the starting XV this week, after coming off the bench in round three, boosting a Ricoh pack that already includes star Brave Blossoms forward Amato Fakatava.
While the Black Rams were stoic in narrow defeats against Verblitz and Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars, they gave up any chance of testing the Wild Knights after a flat first half, which left them astern by 22 points at the break.
Kintetsu have shown similar qualities in each of their last two outings: one good half, one bad.
In their case, it was each of the first halves against the competition heavyweights, Saitama, and Yokohama, that were promising.
The miserable collapses in the second periods were not so flash, but they have been boosted by the presence of Wallaby star Quade Cooper, who plays after missing the first three games of the season.
The 35-year-old’s return from a long-term Achilles injury last season made an immediate impact by helping Kintetsu, who had won just one regular season match, convincingly beat Division Two champions Urayasu D-Rocks over two legs in the Replacement Battle.
Having already stated his availability for international rugby later this year on social media, the 84-test veteran will be looking to make a statement first up.

Champions On the Ropes

It has not been the start to a title defence that Frans Ludeke and his Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay wanted.
The surprise reverse against Shizuoka Blue Revs on Christmas Eve, which followed an opening day loss to Suntory, means the side has already dropped more matches than it did in the entirety of last season’s historic campaign.

Things get no easier for the South African coach on Sunday as his men continue their preparations for Cross-Border by facing near neighbours, Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, who are flying after opening the competition with three impressive wins.
Todd Blackadder’s men have already swept aside one local rival after defeating Sungoliath in the Fuchu derby, and they also boast the competition’s two leading try-scorers in Brave Blossoms winger Jone Naikabula and an unlikely source in All Black loose forward Shannon Frizell, each with five.
Ludeke was able to unwrap his new recruits, Wales fullback Liam Williams and New Zealand hooker Dane Coles, the day before Christmas, and he will be hoping for an increased impact from the test pair now they have had the experience against the Blue Revs to familiarize themselves with the club game in Japan.

Both men have more than handy records as try-scorers in club and international play.
Yokohama, who also have Cross Border on the radar, visit Sagamihara.
After a surprisingly limp performance on opening day against Saitama, last year’s third-placed getters have bounced back strongly, following up a tense win over Verblitz with an effortless second half stroll against Kintetsu.
With the Springbok Rugby World Cup-winners, centre Jesse Kriel and halfback Faf de Klerk, having hit the ground running since their return from France, the Eagles have made a promising start in their bid to make it back-to-back semi-final appearances.
Despite suffering their first defeat of the campaign last time out, the Dynaboars still highlighted their scoring capability by running up 40 points against Verblitz.
Having faltered after an almost identical start to the last campaign, when they won their first two, Sagamihara will see Yokohama as a chance to change that storyline as the season gets deeper.
One man the Eagles will need to contain is the ex-Wallaby centre Curtis Rona, who has scored in each of the opening three matches, and heads into this weekend with four tries to his name.

Just stopping tries will help the bottom side Mie Honda Heat, with their defence having leaked 189 points over the first three weekends.
With Shizuoka coming off a deserved upset win over Kubota, another difficult afternoon could be in store for last season’s promoted side as they continue their struggle to adapt to the higher grade.

Divisions Two & Three – Hiroshima no Holiday for Hino

The last unbeaten records in Division Three go on the line on Saturday as Hino Red Dolphins visit Mazda SkyActivs Hiroshima.

The last time the Red Dolphins were in town, almost two years to the day, both they and the SkyActivs were in Division Two, although Hino’s 43-14 win on that occasion represented a bad start to what became a bad season for the Hiroshima-based club, who were relegated at season’s end.
Having comfortably put away Shimizu Koto Blue Sharks and Kurita Water Gush Akishima on the opening two weekends, Hino will start favourites, but they will need to be wary against a SkyActivs outfit that has won its last two at Balcom BMW Stadium, at the end of the last campaign, and starting this one.
It is rare that the battling Skyactivs win back-to-back, and they will draw strength from the encouraging 30-15 win over Akishima in their opening game.
The remaining matches in Divisions Two and Three both feature sides yet to get off the ‘mark’ for the season, with Kyuden Voltex hosting Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves in Division Two, while Water Gush welcomes Chugoku Electric Power Red Regulions to Tokyo’s AG Field in Division Three.

Hansen versus Deans: Toyota Verblitz coach Steve Hansen and his Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights counterpart Robbie Deans go way back. From colleagues at the title-winning Crusaders of 2000, where Hansen was an assistant to Deans, to their international careers where they faced each other in two rivalries; firstly with Hansen head coach of Wales while Deans was an All Black assistant, and then during Deans’s time as Australia’s head coach, where Hansen was assistant and then head coach (after 2011) of New Zealand. While the latter period saw the future Rugby World Cup-winning All Black coach hold the upper hand in the rivalry, the same was not true of his time with Wales where Deans won all three matches, and nor since both men have taken their talents to Japan. The former Wallaby coach, who has won the Japanese title five times, has been the nemesis of Hansen’s Toyota, with Verblitz not having beaten the Wild Knights since the former All Black boss took charge after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Last year, Saitama took the two battles 34-19, and 19-10, but Hansen comes to Kumagaya this weekend ‘armed’ with premium ‘firepower’ in the form of All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith, alongside Springbok star Pieter Steph du Toit and Brave Blossoms skipper Kazuki Himeno. With great individual test-quality matchups on and off the field, this looms as the unbeaten competition frontrunners’ biggest test so far.

Ricoh’s Black Days: After eight games last term, Ricoh had won just twice. Match Day nine saw the Black Rams trounce Hanazono Kintetsu Liners 64-10 and the momentum gained began their climb to a meritorious seventh place finish at season’s end. So, while losses in the first three isn’t a good start, there will be no panic buttons being pushed among the Black Rams brains trust... yet. Lose to Kintetsu and that might change, especially as their next four opponents comprise Canon, Kubota, Kobelco and Suntory. One aspect of last year’s campaign that still dogs the Black Rams is their discipline. The most penalised side last term, there is just one greater sinner than them so far this time. It happens to be Kintetsu, so a stop start afternoon might be on the cards.

Who will be the ‘Special’ K?: After the first 80 minutes of the season, things did not look good for Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves. The club might have added (Japan Steel) to its name, but the depressing 52-7 home defeat to Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi suggested nothing much else had changed at the Reconstruction Stadium. The last two weekends beg to differ. The Seawaves were only defeated in added time by the Red Hurricanes, despite playing 75 minutes with 14 men, and then roared back from a 33-3 halftime deficit at home to Urayasu, closing to within 11 points before three late tries gave D-Rocks a slightly flattering winning scoreline. Newly promoted Kyuden have less claim to hard luck stories. After blowing a 19-5 halftime lead on opening day against the Red Hurricanes when they lost to a last-minute try, Voltex were out-gunned 57-12 by D-Rocks and gave themselves no chance against NEC Green Rockets either, after falling behind 22-0 at halftime. When the Division Two schedule was finalised, Kyuden chiefs may have marked this engagement down as a must win for the health of their campaign. If not, it definitely is now.

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