Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Semi-finals Preview

Japan Rugby League One 2023-24 Semi-finals Preview

The Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights will meet Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo in the final of the third edition of Japan Rugby League on Sunday at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
The teams, who finished first and second in the rankings for the regular season, came through tight semi-finals that were played in front of a combined crowd of over 30,000 at the Prince Chichibu Stadium in Tokyo.
With a large turned out expected for the final, at a venue with a 68,000 capacity, the league is poised to finish with over 1,100,000 people having attended matches, exceeding the targets set by league officials before the season kicked off.

Wild Knights edge a thriller, Brave Lupus Kings of Fuchu

Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights 20, Yokohama Canon Eagles 17
Saturday May 18 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo. Crowd: 15,464

It’s the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights again!
While few doubted the likely outcome of yesterday’s semi-final between the regular season’s first and fourth ranked teams, the manner of the win, and the total dominance of Yokohama Canon Eagles through much of the match will have surprised even the most ardent Wild Knights fan.
After the concession of two tries in the opening nine minutes, with winger Koki Takeyama and second-rower Jack Cornelsen both scoring on the back of slick handling and cohesion by the Wild Knights which saw the initial bust converted into points, Yokohama almost completely dominated the following 40 minutes.

By halftime, almost all of the game’s metrics were heavily in Yokohama’s favour, except for the most important one with Saitama ahead 13-3, and Eagles coach Keisuke Sawake must have been a frustrated man watching as his
side failed to match the clinical nature of the Wild Knights attack, spurning several attacking chances due to the pressure exerted by their opponents’ defence.
Whatever his halftime message was, it worked spectacularly as the Eagles broke the game open straight after the break, continuing to back their set piece despite some wobbly moments in the first half when they botched three
of their lineout throws.
After winning a kickable penalty shortly after play resumed, Yokohama opted to kick for the corner, and were rewarded after they executed a lineout drive expertly, driving Sione Halasili over for their opening try of the afternoon.
Selected for last year’s Brave Blossoms Rugby World Cup squad as a loose-forward who can also play prop, the 24-year-old was an enormous presence during his 50 minutes, finally departing after several stoppages while he was attended to by the team medics.
The Wild Knights subsequently bossed the breakdown after Halasili limped off, with backrowers Ben Gunter and Lachlan Boshier forcing several crucial turnovers to stymie the Eagles’ momentum.
Having taken the lead when winger Masayoshi Takezawa was worked over in the corner nine minutes after Halasili had scored, Yokohama was unable to score again.
The Wild Knights responded almost immediately after Takezawa’s score with their third try, which was finished by Springbok inside centre Damian de Allende, but owed much to flyhalf Rikiya Matsuda, who broke up the centre of the park to gain the field position from which the two-time Rugby World Cup-winning Springbok scored.
Renowned as a goal-kicker, the Brave Blossoms flyhalf had a leading hand in two of the Wild Knights’ three tries, which were initiated after he split open the Eagles’ defence.
Yokohama received a double whammy from de Allende’s try, with the Eagles surrendering the lead, while also losing Takoto Okabe for 10 minutes after the prop was yellow carded for illegally playing the ball on the ground as the Wild Knights man was in the process of picking the ball up to force it.
In the circumstances, the Eagles did well to hold the Wild Knights at bay during this period, dodging a few bullets as Saitama went close to finishing the job, but while unable to score, the six-time champions made sure that the Eagles couldn’t either, seeing out the last 21 minutes to advance to their fourth straight final.

The win continued the almost unbelievable record of Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans, who has now won 16 of the 18 professional club semi-finals that he has prepared teams for, nine of which have been during his time in
It also added to the misery for the Eagles who, as well as exiting at the semi-final stage for the second consecutive season, fell to their 16th straight loss to the Wild Knights, prolonging a run that stretches back to 2013.

Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo 28, Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath 20
Sunday May 19 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo. Crowd: 17,133

Toshiba Brave Lupus have made it into their first final in a decade after coming from behind to gun down their Fuchu rivals Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath 28-20 in today’s second semi-final.
Suntory led 10-7 at halftime after making much of the running in the first half, but a try by the outstanding Brave Lupus backrower Takeshi Sasaki two minutes into the second period allowed Toshiba to take the lead and they wouldn’t be headed.
The birth of Sasaki’s try was the beginning of the influence Richie Mo’unga was to have on the game, with a sweet pop pass in behind the front line of the attack allowing winger Jone Naikabula to speed through the hole that was created, before linking with his supporting teammate who finished the movement.
It was a rehearsed move executed perfectly, and it gave Brave Lupus the initiative in the contest, providing the platform from which they fashioned their victory.
Suntory must be wondering tonight what it is that semi-finals have in for them, having lost 24-18 to Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay at the same stage last year, after playing 75 minutes with 14 men following the send off of backrower Tui Hendrick.
Today, the good fortune went Toshiba’s way twice, firstly when Sungoliath thought they had responded to the Sasaki try with one of their own after Brave Blossoms scrumhalf Naoto Saito nipped over from the short side of an attacking ruck when the Brave Lupus defence was stretched.
Although awarded, the ‘try’ was subsequently ruled out for a needless off the ball cleanout which had interfered with one of the Brave Lupus defenders.
Ten minutes later, the rugby Gods smiled on Toshiba again, this time when there was doubt about backrower Shannon Frizell’s casual planting of the ball for his 10th try of the season.

The 33-cap All Black should have known better after he was given a clear run to the goal-line following the good work of Brave Lupus outside backs Taichi Mano and Takuro Matsunaga.
Maybe it was too easy, as the ball appeared to slip from his grasp as he put it down, but Frizell received the benefit of the doubt on replay, which allowed Brave Lupus to extend the score to 21-13.
It became 28-13 nine minutes later when Naikabula, who came alive in the second period, linked with fellow winger Atsuki Kuwayama to race down the sideline unimpeded for Toshiba’s fourth try.
While the 63rd minute try failed to knock the stuffing out of the Sungoliath effort, it did create a gap too great to bridge, even though a try six minutes from time by the Brisbane-born second rower Harry Hockings closed the margin to eight points.
Hockings, who had been denied earlier in the game when bundled over the sideline as he attempted to dive for the corner, again hit the same corner, this time successfully.
In what was a theme on the day, the try came from a bungled Suntory lineout throw near the goal-line, which Toshiba failed to clean up, allowing the Australian to snap up the ball to score.
Sungoliath’s first half try, which was the 13th of the season by their hooker Kosuke Horikoshi, was also scored after they regathered from an overthrown lineout, setting up a maul from which their captain was driven over the line.
As well as being their third defeat in a Fuchu derby for the year – mirroring last term where they were beaten three times by Kubota – the loss saw Sungoliath miss out on the final for the second time since they were beaten by Saitama in the decider of the maiden Japan Rugby League One.
They have now been absent from the title-winning arena for five seasons since their last championship success in the 2017-18 season.
They have lost in the final in three of those seasons.
Suntory play the Eagles on Saturday in a repeat of last year’s third/fourth playoff.
Brave Lupus advance to the final having lost just one game through the campaign, 36-24, against side they will face in this season’s decider.

Tries flow for four-star Pablo

After a season where he has been sorely missed, Argentine backrower Pablo Matera showed he had been the missing ingredient all along in Mie Honda Heat’s difficult start to life back in Division One, inspiring his comrades to a healthy first leg advantage over Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi following yesterday’s 57-39 win.
The former Los Pumas captain scored four tries, three in the first half, as the top-tier side jumped out to a 29-17 halftime advantage, before finishing the strongest after the Shuttles had closed to 36-32 with 16 minutes remaining.
While time will tell, the three tries Heat scored across the six minutes from the 67th to the 73rd minutes which gives them an 18-point advantage ahead of Saturday’s return game at Suzuka, may prove the deal-breaker.
The Shuttles were behind by 31 after the first leg of last year’s Replacement Battle against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars, giving them no chance in the return game which they also lost heavily.
Former Wallabies, prop Paddy Ryan and fullback Tom Banks, also got on the scoresheet as Heat finished with eight tries, three in advance of the Shuttles, which holds importance in the unlikely event of the sides’ point’s aggregate for the series finishing all square.
Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo also head into the second weekend with a healthy advantage, comfortably disposing of NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu 40-21, with the damage done in the first period when the visitors ran in four tries to
lead 26-7 at the break.
While Wayne Pivac’s side fought hard in the second half, the ex-Six Nations winning Wales coaches’ charges were unable to whittle away at the margin during a period where both sides scored two converted tries, which allowed Ricoh to return home with a 19-point buffer.
After surprisingly starting from the bench, ex-England backrower finished the scoring after he took the field, with his 11th try of the season stretching the Black Rams’ final advantage, after the Green Rockets had scored two tries in the opening 15 minutes of the second half to close the gap to 12.
Meanwhile having lost out to Quade Cooper and the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners at the corresponding stage last season, Division Two champions Urayasu D-Rocks will travel to Osaka for Friday night’s second leg with fate firmly in their own hands after a 21-12 win yesterday.

While they trailed 12-7 at halftime, any fears of a second half blowout and an insurmountable deficit, such as the 22-point margin they conceded to Kintetsu in the first leg last year, were quickly dispelled, as the home side added two converted tries to their tally, while holding their opponents scoreless.
Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves have taken a big step towards retaining Division Two status after today overpowering challengers Kurita Water Gush Akishima 37-19 in the home leg of the Division Two/Three Replacement Battle.
Two tries by each of winger Ryuji Abe and backrower Seta Koroitamana, as well as the unerring boot of flyhalf Kazushi Ochi, who kicked 17 points, allowed Division Two’s bottom-ranked side to draw clear after the visitors had been in with a shout, trailing 13-12 at halftime.
Two second half yellow cards didn’t help Akishima’s cause, and the Division Three side have the odds stacked against them for Saturday’s return leg in Tokyo, needing to win by 19 points to gain promotion.
The Seawaves beat Water Gush 38-28 in the corresponding match in Tokyo last year, after Water Gush had returned from Iwate having held Kamaishi to a 25-25 draw in the first leg.

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