Official Review: Japan Rugby League One 2023-24

Official Review: Japan Rugby League One 2023-24

Division One – And then there were four

Times, dates, teams, and draw are confirmed for the semi-finals of Japan Rugby League One after the weekend’s

final round of the regular season.

The Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights probably enjoyed the start of their ‘Golden Week’ holiday the most, spanking

their upcoming semi-final opponents, Yokohama Canon Eagles, 43-14 at Oita.

Although convincing, the scoreline disguises a mistake ridden second half, where the Wild Knights let their

enthusiasm get the better of them, as they struggled to turn their almost total dominance into points.

After a competitive first half, Brave Blossoms centre Dylan Riley broke the game open for the league-leaders,

moving his personal try tally for the season to 14 – joint second on the rankings – after a double strike in the final

10 minutes of the half, which allowed the Wild Knights to pull away, extending a 17-14 lead to a 31-14 halftime


The second of Riley’s tries were scored while the Eagles’ Wallaby Matthew Phillip was off the field, with the

second rower having been suckered into a professional foul, making an early tackle from an off-side position after

the Wild Knights re-started quickly from a free kick.

Already ahead by 17, the visitor’s looked set to run up a big score after winger Koki Takeyama’s brilliant 47th

minute try extended the advantage beyond three converted scores.

That they didn’t was down to desperate Yokohama defence, as well as a plethora of turnovers which will have

given Saitama coach Robbie Deans plenty of training fodder to use with his players before the re-match on May


It took the Wild Knights until the 78th minute to add to their tally, scoring their sixth try when hooker Yuji

Shimogama ploughed over.

Such is the club’s depth in the position, with long-time test players Atushi Sakate and Shota Horie on the books, it

was just the 32-year-old’s second appearance in the league.

None of the Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay players will be adding to their game tallies for the rest of the

season, but the outgoing champions departed with a bang, recording their fourth win in five against Tokyo Suntory

Sungoliath, overpowering their rivals with three tries in the last 13 minutes to storm to a 45-26 win.

Prior to centre Sione Teaupa’s 67th minute try, the Spears had never led in the game, falling behind from the early

stages after the Ozaki brothers; Taiga, and Seiya, combined to score three first half tries, which gave Suntory a 19-

14 halftime advantage.

That became 26-14 when Taiga completed his hattrick, three minutes after the break, but the semi-final-bound

Sungoliath didn’t score again, leaving the five-time Japanese champions with some major work to do ahead of

their May 19 date with Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo.

Kubota’s win means Suntory will enter the knockout phase, and the third Fuchu derby of the season, on the back

of three winless weeks, following a draw with Shizuoka Blue Revs (31-31) and a defeat by Brave Lupus (36-27).

Their semi-final rivals welcomed back flyhalf Richie Mo’unga as they trounced Blue Revs 59-20 yesterday, with the

All Black announcing his presence by scoring 19 points, including a try, after missing Toshiba’s last three matches

while on bereavement leave.

Fellow All Black Shannon Frizell, and the Brave Blossoms trio of winger Jone Naikabula (two), backrower Michael

Leitch and second rower Warner Dearns were all among the nine tries posted by Brave Lupus against a flat Blue

Revs outfit whose season has collapsed in the last two weeks, conceded 122 points.

Heating up at the right time

Mie Honda Heat might be headed to the Replacement Battle, but they showed they are going to be a handful for

Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi over the two legs of that series after their last gasp 33-31 defeat by Kobelco Kobe

Steelers on Saturday.

The division’s 11th ranked side, who had been belted 80-15 when the teams met on the opening day of the

season, rallied from 28-17 down with 30 minutes remaining to grab the lead heading into the final 10.

They couldn’t hold on though, as Kobe’s replacement hooker Takuya Kitade scored two minutes from time to seal

fifth place on the log for his side.

Kobe outscored Heat by five-tries-to-four, but the accurate boot of the former Super Rugby player, ex-(Otago)-

Highlander Mitchell Hunt, kept his side in the contest.

A renowned point-scorer in his native New Zealand, Hunt endured a lean time of it in his first season in Japan,

with Saturday’s 11 points his first double figure return from a campaign where he has finished with 36 points from

14 appearances.

By contrast, League One has provided a bonanza for his Kobe rival Bryn Gatland, whose eight points on his final

afternoon of duty took the former (Waikato) Chiefs player’s season tally to 217 from 16 appearances, 25 ahead of

his nearest rival, Saitama’s Brave Blossoms flyhalf, Rikiya Matsuda.

Gatland’s return fell one short of the 218 scored by his compatriot and former Chiefs teammate Damien

McKenzie, but the All Blacks’ points in the maiden edition of the league included appearances in the semi-final

and final.

English flyhalf James Grayson starred as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars bagged their sixth

victory of the campaign, downing Hanazono Kintetsu Liners 46-36.

The 25-year-old Northampton Boys’ High School product collected 21 points, which included a try and a dropped

goal, to finish fourth on the individual rankings with 148, ahead of both Mo’unga and his fellow All Black, Beauden


Former Wallaby Quade Cooper helped Kintetsu prevail in last year’s Replacement Battle against Urayasu D-Rocks,

and his try in the defeat highlighted that he will be a key man again if the club is to maintain its place in the

premier section.

While it never flirted with the positions in The Replacement Battle, nor did Toyota Verblitz ever threaten the top

four; a fact yesterday’s comfortable 45-18 win over Ricoh Black Rams couldn’t disguise.

It took Verblitz nearly an hour to shake off their lower ranked opponents, who took the lead in the 52nd minute

when backrower Nathan Hughes bulldozed his way over for the first of two tries, the second coming in referee’s

time at the end.

The double took the ex-England man’s total for the season to 10, one short of what he achieved last term – with

the two-legged Replacement Battle to come – but his efforts were unable to get the Black Rams over the line on

this day, as Toyota finished with a rush, bagging five tries in the final 22 minutes.

Two of those, grabbed within just over a minute of each other, were scored in the last moments before fulltime by

All Black scrumhalf Aaron Smith, taking the total tries from his maiden season in Japan Rugby League One to eight.

Despite finishing the season with nine wins – one more than they achieved last term – Verblitz dropped one place

in the rankings to finish seventh.

Divisions Two & Three – It’s Akishima!

After trailing their head-to-head rivals for much of the season, Kurita Water Gush Akishima leap-frogged Mazda

SkyActivs Hiroshima when it mattered most, grabbing Division Three’s spot in the Replacement Battle after a nail-

biting 38-33 win on Saturday.

Water Gush, who are coached by ex-Wallaby backrower Wycliff Palu, trailed 14-10 at halftime, but responded

after the break with 21-unanswered points in 16 minutes to seize control.

The side’s subsequently traded tries as Akishima led 38-21 with just two minutes left, but they were made to

withstand a furious final assault by the SkyActivs, who scored twice in the remaining time to close to within five.

Despite the late defiance, the bonus point was not enough for the Hiroshima-based side to prolong their season,

with Water Gush taking the Replacement Battle position against Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves even though the

teams had finished tied on log points with 20 each.

Akishima advanced by virtue of having won one more game that the SkyActivs during the regular season.

Yesterday’s game between the two sides who have already secured promotion, Hino Red Dolphins and Shimizu

Corporation Koto Blue Sharks, saw the Division Three champions beaten for the first time, losing a remarkable

match 38-26.

The Blue Sharks, who had lost their two earlier matches against the Red Dolphins heavily, looked headed for

another major defeat when second rower Suguru Hidaka and flyhalf Lima Soapaga were both yellow carded in the

first half, at one point leaving their side with 13-men.

In their absence, Hino surged to a 26-0 lead after 30 minutes, with ex-Wallaby second rower Rory Arnold scoring

the fourth of his side’s tries.

But that was it.

Restored to a full complement, the Blue Sharks scored twice in the final three minutes before the break, both

tries by winger Tooru Kanazawa, to close to 26-14, and then posted 24 unanswered second half points to claim a

satisfying victory to take into their summer break

Fullback Conrad van Wyk, the division’s leading point-scorer, picked up his 11th try of the season, as he added 13

points to his season’s tally.

The evergreen South African ended the campaign with 156 points, 41 clear of his nearest challenger, with his try

tally two better than anyone else in the section.

In Division Two, the final round of the Placement series today saw Urayasu D-Rocks win the race to face

Hanazono Kintetsu Liners, Division One’s tailenders, after overwhelming NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu 48-28 at


The Division Two champions, who had had a 31-28 win, and a 31-28 loss, from their previous meetings, worked

their way to a 17-7 halftime advantage before blowing the Green Rockets away in the back end of the contest.

Another close finish appeared likely when two tries in quick succession by ex-Wallaby scrumhalf Nick Phipps

hauled his side back to 24-21 with 30 minutes to play before D-Rocks lifted to another level.

Their runaway finish was inspired by a second half hattrick from midfielder Shane Gates, who took his try tally

from the two match Placement round to five, as D-Rocks put on 24 points without reply between the 57th and

72nd minute.

Although Green Rockets scored the final try of the contest, it was mere consolation as they dropped to third in

Placement, confirming a tie with Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo in The Replacement Battle.

The final match of the Placement series in the lower half of the Division Two table saw Red Hurricanes Osaka sign

off with a 22-12 win over Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex.

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