Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Semi-fianls preview

Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Semi-fianls preview

Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights (1) v Yokohama Canon Eagles (4)
Saturday May 18 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo, 2.05pm (JT)

Just how long can this continue?
It’s now over a decade since Yokohama Canon Eagles last beat Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights.
That was a 23-18 win in 2013.
In the 15 games since, the Eagles have been shot down each time, often by large margins.
This tally includes last year’s semi-final where, after a stirring first half which they ended ahead by two, Yokohama totally fluffed their lines, capitulating to the tune of a 36-3 second period, as the six-time champions stormed home to win 51-20.
Big scores have been the order of the day in the meetings so far this season too, with the Wild Knights following up a 53-12 win on opening day with a 43-14 success to close the qualifying rounds; a win that was the team’s 16th in-a-row, completing a third unbeaten regular season in four years.
Conversely, the Eagles bring losing form to Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in downtown Tokyo on Saturday for the season’s first semi-final, having dropped their last two.
The last time Yokohama lost three straight was three years ago.
Eagles coach Keisuke Sawake – who twice beat his Wild Knights counterpart Robbie Deans when winning the 2016-17 and 2017-18 titles with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath – has not been helped by injury this season.

Springbok stars, centre Jesse Kriel and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, were instrumental in last year’s run to the semi-finals, but have missed a large chunk of this season, and while Kriel has returned in time for the playoffs, his fellow

Rugby World Cup-winner is reportedly back in training with the club but hasn’t made it back onto the field in time.

Fellow Springbok, second rower Lood de Jager, has been one of the stars of the Wild Knights’ campaign.
After starting late as he recovered from a rare heart disorder that forced him to bypass last year’s successful Rugby World Cup defence by South Africa, the 31-year-old has been bouncing around like a young buck (or is that Bok?), relishing the fast pace, hard grounds, and expansive play that have been at the core of the Wild Knights’ success.
De Jager announced his return with a try against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars on Match Day Five and got the taste for it: after three weeks, he had scored four.
He enters the semi-finals with six tries from 10 games, and displaying the type of set-piece dominance that won’t have gone unnoticed by returning Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, and quite probably – ahead of their much- anticipated mid-year tour – Irish coach Andy Farrell as well.

The Wild Knights arrive at the knockouts comfortably the highest point-scorers in the league, having run up 747 at an average of 47 per game.
Given this is 229 points more than Yokohama accumulated in the regular season, it is somewhat surprising that the Eagles have two players ranked among the top 10 try-scorers in the league, the Wild Knights just one.
Hooker Shunta Nakamura is second for tries among forwards with 11, teammate and explosive centre Viliame Takayawa one ahead, and fifth among all players, on 12.
For the Wild Knights, Brave Blossoms centre Dylan Riley – the joint highest try-scorer in the maiden edition of JRLO with 13 – ranks second this year, despite scoring one more try than he did then.
While Riley is just one of numerous on-field attacking threats, Saitama has arguably its most potent weapon in the coaching box, with Deans boasting a semi-final record unrivalled in professional club rugby.

Since he began with his home province in New Zealand’s national provincial championship in 1997, the 64-year-old has presided over 17 semi-finals through his time coaching Canterbury, the Crusaders, and the Wild Knights.

The New Zealander has won 15 of them, an astonishing 88 percent success rate, going on to win the title 11 times.
Five of those titles have been won during his association with the Wild Knights, with success in the maiden Japan Rugby League One levelling the number of championships he achieved in Super Rugby.
Ominously for Yokohama, his team has won all eight semi-finals they have contested since he began his association with the Wild Knights.
Will Saturday be the ninth?

Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo (2) v Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath (3)
Sunday May 19 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo, 2.05pm (JT)

What’s been before doesn’t matter.
Although Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo has won each of the previous two Fuchu derbies this season, neither result will count for much if they can’t complete a hattrick on Sunday to end the season of their west Tokyo rivals, Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath.
The two last met in a semi-final two years ago, when Suntory reversed a 27-3 defeat from the penultimate round of the regular season to beat Toshiba 30-24, 20 days later, in the first knock out round.
While, along with the Wild Knights, Sungoliath have been the dominant force of the professional club era in Japan, you must go back to the 2017-18 season to find the last of their five titles.

Suntory have been beaten in three finals in the time since, losing to Kobe in 2018-19, and then to Panasonic back- to-back in the final Top League and maiden Japan Rugby League One.

They fell 24-18 to Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay in the semi-finals last term despite a battling performance after ex-Brave Blossoms second rower Hendrick Tui was sent off in the fifth minute for foul play.
The game remained in the balance until the final moments, with a converted try by the ex-All Black Aaron Cruden at the end of regulation time drawing his side to within another of victory, before the eventual champions saw out the referee’s minutes to move onto the final weekend.
Perhaps ominously for Sungoliath, the defeat was their third against Kubota for the campaign; a feat Toshiba will replicate if it succeeds at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.
Despite losing five times in the regular season, Suntory has had excuses, having to do without the services of star internationals, Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe and All Black backrower Sam Cane, for the bulk of the season, after losing Wales flyhalf Gareth Anscombe before a ball had even been kicked.
Making the semi-finals despite those difficulties will provide the players with confidence and give them a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude, which spells danger for Todd Blackadder’s men.
This week’s confirmation that Cane will extend his time in Fuchu after agreeing a three-year deal adds to the ‘feel good’ factor in the Suntory camp.

The recruitment of Rugby World Cup final starting All Blacks, Richie Mo’unga and Shannon Frizell, along with the return of warrior-like Brave Blossoms veteran Michael Leitch to the captaincy, have been major factors in a season that has seen Brave Lupus beaten just once, and that was a close contest against the Wild Knights.
Directed by Mo’unga, who had won seven titles by the time he left the Crusaders, Toshiba have proved a slick operation, and their depth was illustrated by the three wins they gathered while the star flyhalf was absent on bereavement leave, which included the second win over Suntory.
As well as his ruthless attitude in contact, former (Otago) Highlander Frizell has added an extra string to his bow in Japan as a try-scorer.
The backrower ended the regular season with nine from 15 outings; a statistic made even more impressive by the fact he scored just 19 from 68 matches with the Highlanders in Super Rugby, and eight in his 33 tests.
Like his All Black teammate Mounga, who is the league’s fifth leading point-scorer with 145 from 13 appearances, Frizell came to Japan chasing titles, not numbers.
Even so, the number three, in terms of Toshiba’s Fuchu derby wins for the season, is a statistic the 30-year-old would happily accept come Sunday night.

The Replacement Battle

This time last year, Urayasu D-Rocks had yet to lose a game, Hanazono Kintetsu Liners had won just one of them.
As such, the runaway Division Two leaders were entitled to feel that promotion via the Replacement Battle was a likely outcome.
It didn’t work out that way.
With Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper returning in the nick of time after long-term injury, Kintetsu ran riot in the first leg, effectively sealing the series with a comprehensive 36-14 victory.
Faced with a 22-point deficit, D-Rocks collapsed in the return fixture, conceding nine tries, and 14 overall for the series, in a 56-21 defeat.
Urayasu entered their first Replacement Battle having won all 12 of their matches, averaging 49 points per game.
This time they come in as winners of their last 11, averaging 40.
How much have D-Rocks learned?

Despite losing their first regular season game, when beaten by NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu on the opening day of the season, Johan Ackerman’s side hasn’t lost since, winning both games of the Placement Series by big margins.
That set up another tie with Kintesu who, like last year, arrive at the series having won just once, when they beat fellow Replacement Battle participant Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo 34-23 last month.
Although the statistics look bleak, the Division One tailenders have been a lot more competitive than last term, as was evidenced three weeks ago when they only trailed the league-leading Wild Knights 21-17 with 12 minutes to go, before conceding two late tries to fall 33-24.
It was just the fifth time in 15 matches that Saitama had been denied a try-scoring bonus point, with only two sides (Suntory and Kobe) having restricted the free-scoring Wild Knights to less than the 33 points conceded by the league’s bottom ranked team.
Kintetsu have also won four of their last six against D-Rocks and their forerunners, the Shining Arcs.
All of which suggests Urayasu are going to have their hands full.
Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi have similarly painful memories of last year’s series.
The Shuttles were blown out of the water in the first leg by the 10th placed side from the top section, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars, with the tie effectively over after its first 50 minutes, by which time the Division One outfit led 40-7.
Sagamihara went on to win 59-21, which they backed up with a 43-14 success in the second leg.
After starting the season well, winning the opening three, the Shuttles flatlined, losing twice to Urayasu and once against NEC in the regular season, which was followed by another heavy defeat against D-Rocks in the Placement Round. But a surprise 17-14 win over the Green Rockets in the second game of that series has revived hopes as they face an Mie Honda Heat side that leaked 744 points at an average of 46.5 per game on their return to the top flight.
As well as their shaky defence, keeping 15 players on the field has been an issue for Honda, with their 14 card sanctions, six more than the Division’s second worst offender, Kintetsu.
Kieran Crowley’s side were without their inspirational former Argentine captain Pablo Matera for the bulk of the campaign after he came back from the Rugby World Cup injured, and his return has lifted Heat as they bid to defend the status they achieved by upsetting NEC last year.

Honda beat the Green Rockets 34-29 in the opening game and the margin proved enough after the Division One side managed just a one-point win in the home leg, despite a frantic finish after the hosts scored a late try to close to 13-12 with 10 minutes to go.
Matera was an influential figure as Honda got over the line, and they will be looking to the powerful backrower along with indefatigable Springbok second rower Franco Mostert, to be their warriors in what promises to be a close contest against a Shuttles outfit Honda has not been defeated by since 2016.
Having been relegated last term, the Wayne Pivac-coached Green Rockets find themselves with an opportunity to return immediately, but that won’t be easy for the former Six Nations-winning Wales coaches’ charges against a Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo side that NEC has lost its last 10 games against.
After winning seven-in-a-row, the Green Rockets’ season is in danger of petering out, with losses in the last three hinting at an outfit that is running out of steam.
Ricoh gave themselves plenty of opportunities to finish outside of Division One’s bottom three.
Although the Black Rams only won three games, eight of their 13 defeats were by 10 points or less, five of these by within the margin of a converted try.
The latter cluster included a one-point defeat by the outgoing champions Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, as well as a seven-point margin against semi-finalists, Toshiba.
Return to the level of those two performances and the Black Rams will almost certainly be safe.

Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves know all about the pressures of the Replacement Battle after last season’s two- legged series win over Kurita Water Gush Akishima, who they meet again having finished bottom of the pile in Division Two.
The Seawaves, who have won just once this season – one less than last year – fought back from an 18-3 halftime deficit to scramble a 25-25 draw in the home leg against Water Gush, and it proved decisive after a first half blitz
in Tokyo powered them to a 25-7 lead at the midpoint of the second match, which Akishima couldn’t reel in, as the Division Two side finished with a 38-28 win to retain their ranking.
Water Gush, who are coached by the ex-Wallaby backrower Wycliff Palu, bring winning form to the series, having won five of their 12 games this season, including the last two, which propelled them to third in the standings, and
the spot in the Replacement Battle reserved for Division Three.

Latest News