Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round 15 Review

Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Round 15 Review

Division One – More Fuchu ‘fun’ to come

Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo and Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath can’t get enough of each other.
Well, that’s how it might seem to outsiders after the pair were confirmed for a semi-final date despite Brave Lupus getting the better of their west Tokyo rivals in an entertaining second Fuchu Derby of the season.
With a third instalment now to come, Japan Rugby League One is all the better for it.
Yesterday’s contest saw pragmatism and relentless energy overcome possession and territorial dominance as Brave Lupus outscored Sungoliath five-tries-to-four in a 36-27 victory on a sunny afternoon in downtown Tokyo.
The win completed Toshiba’s first season ‘double’ over Suntory since the 2010-11 season, but they had to work for it, being forced to turn back a seeming tidal wave of gold clad ball runners for large periods of the game, while fielding a creaky scrum that spent a good portion of the game in reverse.
That Sungoliath couldn’t profit from both their domination, and the absence from the Brave Lupus lineup of their All Black star Richie Mo’unga – who was part of an enthusiastic 13,000-strong crowd – reflected the pressure Toshiba built through its relentless defence.
It was also indicative of the strain that steadily built on the Suntory offense to respond, given Toshiba was soclinical when it had the chance to attack.
Flyhalf Hayata Nakao was at the centre of much of the mischief, twice laying on tries with sleight of hand; one an admittedly unintentional bounce pass that sat up perfectly for winger Jone Naikabula, allowing him to set up All Black centre Seta Tamanivalu for the game’s opening try.

The second was a subtle inside ball near the goal-line which opened the space for the Fijian-born Naikabula to bust through, after his teammate had made the defence hesitate by changing the point of the attack.
Nakao was also the genesis of the second of the tries scored by Toshiba’s New Zealand winger Michael Collins, but the 29-year-old’s most artistic piece was the little pop kick in behind which exposed the advancing Sungoliath defence, allowing the ball to be reclaimed for inside centre Nicholas McCurran to score.
While unable to make the most of Naikabula’s yellow card for dangerous play towards the back end of the first half, Sungoliath did close to 17-10 on the stroke of halftime, when their derby day ‘specialist’ Seiya Ozaki touched down for his fifth try in the last six derbies – and 13th try of the season – which sent the teams to the sheds with the game in the balance.
Tries by Naikabula and Collins in the 10 minutes immediately following the resumption left Sungoliath chasing an ever-increasing deficit, and while they scored three of the afternoon’s final four tries, they had left themselves with too much to do.
Toyota Verblitz may have experienced a similar feeling as they hammered away at Yokohama Canon Eagles through 31 phases after the final hooter had sounded at Aichi.
The four-minute attack went from side to side, and was going nowhere, until All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett sprinkled some of his magic dust, spotting space in behind some tiring defenders, and backing fullback Taichi Takahashi to win the race to his toe-poke through the defensive line.
The two-time World Rugby Player of the Year rolled the dice and won, with his teammate busting between some desperate defenders to reach the ball first, ending a thrilling contest 35-31 in the home side’s favour. While Toyota won’t be playing semi-finals, it’s doubtful their 27-year-old fullback could have done any more.
Yesterday’s match-winner was part of Takahashi’s fourth multiple try-scoring afternoon of the season, taking his overall tally to 13 – tied with Ozaki as the league’s second highest – in a campaign where he has featured as a try- scorer in 10 of the 15 matches.

The defeat, which means Yokohama will now have to back up against the unbeaten Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights in the semi-finals after facing them in Saturday’s final round, was especially tough on their 22-year-old rookie flyhalf Yuragi Muto, who scored a try and kicked five from five, returning 16 points on his maiden league start, and just his second appearance overall.
Franco Mostert might have been left pondering the fairness of the oval ball game too after his side’s astonishing collapse in their 61-24 defeat by Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay.

The Replacement Battle-bound Mie Honda Heat were in dreamland, leading the outgoing champions 17-0 after 30 minutes when the Rugby World Cup-winning Springbok second rower was yellow carded.
By the time he had returned, the Spears had scored three tries to capture the lead, and they didn’t stop, scoring one try for just over every five minutes of play in the second half, seven in all, to finalise a scoreline that would have been unimaginable after the opening half-an-hour.
For the indefatigable Mostert – the only player in the league to have completed more than 200 tackles – to have been the genesis of such a dramatic turnaround in the game with his sinbinning, seemed the height of unfairness given his season’s herculean efforts.

Rams’ tail of misfortune

Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.
Certainly, that’s the way everyone connected with Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo will feel after the side beat Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars 31-24 yesterday but fell into the Replacement Battle anyway.
While a 79th-minute penalty goal – enough to give Mitsubishi a price bonus point – ultimately condemned the Black Rams to the promotion/relegation lottery, an inability to win the close ones sealed their fate.
Of their 12 defeats, four (15-8 v Toyota, 18-17 v Kubota, 36-29 v Shizuoka, 40-33 v Toshiba) have been by margins of seven points or less, while two (25-17 v Mitsubishi, 27-17 v Kobe) have been by no more than 10.
They can take encouragement from that as thoughts turn to survival, although coach Peter Hewat will be drumming into his players the need to keep going for the full 80 minutes after they fell away in the back end of the game for the second time in two matches, after having given up a 14-3 advantage during last week’s costly defeat 34-23 by Kintetsu.
The Black Rams made a storming start, hitting the Dynaboars with a try by centre Daisuke Nishikawa in the second minute, which was the first of three tries in the opening quarter, the end of which saw the visitors in front 19-0.
Brave Blossoms backrower Amato Fakatava added a further try before halftime, and winger Amanaki Taiyo Lotoahea one after, to have Ricoh where they wanted to be, 31-7 ahead, and sitting on a must have bonus point, having outscored the Dynaboars five tries-to-one.
But they ran out of gas.

As the Dynaboars fought back with two tries between the 61st and 68th minutes, the Black Rams’ objective became retaining the lead till the finish, while denying their opponents a bonus point.
They achieved one, but not the other, as ex-Northampton flyhalf James Grayson slotted the penalty goal that handed Ricoh an unwanted trip to the post regular season Replacement Battle against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
The level of yesterday’s performance suggests a Division Two side is going to have to play very well to beat them, but that’s not much consolation right now for a team who will feel they shouldn’t be facing that jeopardy at all.
Hanazono Kintetsu Liners will also defend their status in the post-season and while they didn’t come away from Kumagaya victorious, the fighting qualities shown in the 33-24 defeat will serve them well in the coming weeks.
While Saitama coach Robbie Deans rested several of his big guns, home advantage and an experienced core was always going to make it hard for the Kintetsu players to believe they could win, but they gave it a good crack.
With both sides scoring just one try in the first half, the Wild Knights only led 7-5, and while they turned up the gas after halftime, Kintetsu stayed with them, closing to 21-17 with 12 minutes to play after back-to-back tries within five minutes of each other.
The Wild Knights are not six-time champions for nothing, however, and they pulled away again with tries by the ex-(Wellington) Hurricanes Super Rugby players, centre Vince Aso and second row Mark Abbott, rendering a late try by Kintetsu immaterial.
Significantly though, 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 Wild Knights to less than the 33 points conceded by the league’s bottom ranked team.
At the other end of the scale, Shizuoka Blue Revs suffered their heaviest defeat of the season, and Kobe recorded their second biggest win, as Dave Rennie’s side swatted away their previously well performed opponents 63-19.
The Blue Revs were unbeaten in five entering the contest, but any prospect of extending the run to six was gone by halftime after Kobe ended a dominant first half 28-0 ahead.
World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea was among the first half try-scorers, while Brave Blossoms midfielder
Timothy Lafaele and his international colleague Seungsin Lee also contributed.
Lafaele added a second after the break.

All Black second rower Brodie Retallick also got on the scoresheet as the points kept coming, Kobe eventually finishing with nine tries to the visitor’s three consolation scores.
While the former Wallaby coach is not going to experience semi-final footy in his first season in the league, only Heat can prevent a fifth-placed finish now, which seems unlikely based on current form.

Divisions Two & Three – Green Rockets shock opens up promotion pathway

The picture of who plays who in next month’s Replacement Battle between the bottom three from Division One and their highest placed Division Two counterparts took an unpredictable turn when Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi scored late to snatch victory at NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu this afternoon.
Hooker Akito Fujinami’s second try of the season, five minutes before the end, gave the Shuttles a 17-14 victory, meaning they end the section’s Placement Round with a win and a loss.
Wayne Pivac’s Green Rockets now need to beat Division Two champions Urayasu D-Rocks in the final game of the series to avoid a Replacement Battle against Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo.
A repeat of their 31-28 success against D-Rocks on the opening day of the season would earn a tie against one of Mie Honda Heat or Hanazono Kintetsu Liners, relegating the Shuttles to a playoff against the higher section’s 10th placed Rams.
The Shuttles, who lost 57-20 to D-Rocks in last week’s opening game of Placement, conceded an early try to Wallaby scrumhalf Nick Phipps, but levelled when centre Joshua Kerevi, the elder brother of Wallaby and D-Rocks star Samu, levelled things up just before halftime.
While the home side edged ahead again with prop Viliami Lutua Ahofono’s sixth try from as many matches in his debut season, they were unable to score through the final 35 minutes, as the Shuttles closed with a penalty goal by former England man Freddie Burns, before grabbing the lead just before fulltime.
Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves have been confirmed for The Replacement Battle against either Mazda Sky Activs Hiroshima or Kurita Water Gush Akishima of Division Three after the northerners fell to Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex in the division’s other Placement match.
The Voltex held the upper hand for most of the contest, overturning an early deficit to capture the lead in the 16th minute when they scored their second try.

The home side was never headed again at Fukuoka, finishing with a six-try-to-four margin as they pressed on from a 21-13 halftime advantage to complete a 42-32 win; a scoreline which flattered the Seawaves.
Division Three saw Kyushu Electric Power Kurita Water Gush force a winner take all final round bout with Mazda SkyActivs Hiroshima after sending their cross-town colleagues, Chugoku Electric Power Red Regulions, into the summer on the back of a 31-23 defeat.
Needing a win to keep the contest for third, and a place in The Replacement Battle, alive, Water Gush dominated the opening period, building up a 21-3 halftime lead, which they extended by seven shortly after play resumed.
Although the home side fought back, scoring the final two tries of the game to deny Water Gush a bonus point, the second came in the 79th minute, and they were never in a position to threaten the result.
With the SkyActivs unable to add to their points tally during a valiant 38-30 loss to champions, Hino Red Dolphins, Water Gush can now steal third place on the final day by beating Mazda on their return to Hiroshima.

The psychology of the semis: They may already have qualified for the semi-finals but don’t underestimate the psychological advantage to be gained by winning the ‘Phony Wars’ beforehand. Brave Lupus have already ‘doubled up’ against Sungoliath who they will now face again in three weeks. The fact that Kubota did something similar to them last term, completing the hattrick in the semi-final, won’t have been lost on a Suntory outfit that will be hoping to get back international stars Cheslin Kolbe and Sam Cane in time for the biggest game of their season. In the Toshiba camp, confidence will be sky high after taking their playoff opponents down without their All Black talisman Richie Mo’unga. Panasonic too, will be looking to land a major psychological blow on Canon, after drawing the Eagles in the first knock out round for the second year in a row. Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans knows all about winning playoff games, and after resting many of his big ‘guns’ against Kintetsu, it seems likely he will be firing them at Yokohama on Saturday with the aim of destroying his rival’s belief before the semi-final itself even starts.

Gushing with danger: They might not have provided a tidal wave of tries, with just seven between them, but if the SkyActivs are to retain third spot in Division Three and qualify for a shot at promotion, they are going to have to contain the unsung heroes of the Water Gush outfit; second rower Tebita Oto and midfielder Hosea Saumaki.
Oto has made more carries than any other player in Division Three, while Saumaki was the only player to have beaten more than 50 defenders, having evaded 55, prior to kick off against Chugoku.

A golden boot in waiting: He isn’t going to get two further opportunities in the playoffs, but that might not stop Bryn Gatland from signing off from his maiden season in Japan Rugby League One as its leading point-scorer. Son of the three-time British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, the Kobelco Kobe Steelers flyhalf picked up 18 points in his teams’ demolition of the Blue Revs, becoming the first player in the league’s short history to surpass 200 points in the regular season. The 28-year-old ended the day on 209, at a tick under 14 points per game, 30 ahead of his closest challenger, Saitama’s Rikiya Matsuda. All Black Damien McKenzie scored 191 regular season points for Suntory in the maiden edition of the competition, extending that to 218 after the two game playoff series. Bernard Foley headed home the field last term with 173, upping his overall season tally to 199 after the semi-final and final. Gatland has only failed to return double digit points on four occasions in the current campaign, exceeding 20 on three occasions, and 15 a further three times.

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