Official Preview: Japan Rugby League One Round Fourteen

Official Preview: Japan Rugby League One Round Fourteen

Division One – Matsuda versus Barrett II: Rikiya’s big moment

It’s been quite a year for Rikiya Matsuda.
A 37-cap Brave Blossom, and long-time pilot of the champion Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, the 29-year-old has had to deal with the arrival in Japan Rugby League One of two major ‘prize fighters’ in the number 10 jersey this season: the celebrated All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga. Matsuda has more than held his own.

While Mo’unga especially has made a big impact at his club, providing a point of difference that has helped Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo to take the step from gallant nearly men, to genuine title contenders; Matsuda has marched on.

No fuss, no headlines, just consistent performance at the heart of the well-oiled Wild Knights machine, topped off by one of the best boots in the competition, which has reaped him 169 points thus far, just three behind the competition leader, Kobelco Kobe Steelers’ Bryn Gatland.

Such has been Matsuda’s consistency, Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans has been happy to use his other highly touted test flyhalf Takuya Yamasawa in a floating role, primarily as a fullback, but also as a game changing agent when pushed up into the front line.

It’s a formula that works: Matsuda providing the general-ship and control, Yamasawa the brilliance from the back that has helped the Wild Knights dig themselves out of trouble a few times in the past. Not so much this season though, where the six-time champions arrive at round 14 still unbeaten, maintaining an average winning margin of 30.9 points.

This includes wins by 16 points over Barrett’s Toyota Verblitz, and 12 against Mo’unga and Brave Lupus, which has left the Wild Knights in excellent shape as they travel to Aichi on Saturday looking to take another step towards their third unbeaten regular season in four years.

Verblitz, who boast All Blacks Barrett and scrumhalf Aaron Smith, Springbok backrower Pieter Steph du Toit and Brave Blossoms backrower and captain Kazuki Himeno, kept their faint hopes of semi-final participation alive last week after achieving their first back-to-back wins of the season against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars which included 19 points from Barrett.

But much of the off field focus this week has been on the future beyond their current campaign. Toyota announced on Wednesday that ex-All Black coach Ian Foster will be joining his former ‘boss’ Steve Hansen at the club next year, as will the New Zealand-born Australian rugby league star Joseph Manu.

The latter will not count as one of the three capped foreign players among the allowable quota for clubs, leaving Hansen and Foster free to source another test star for their roster as well, to replace the one-season Barrett.
It seems unlikely the newcomers will be joining a side that made the playoffs, but while Verblitz will need other results to fall their way to make this a possibility, upsetting the Wild Knights on Saturday is a non-negotiable to keep the chance alive.

An upset win by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars over Yokohama Canon Eagles on the same afternoon would also help, both for Verblitz, but more especially the closest side still in range of fourth place, Kobelco Kobe Steelers.

With the Eagles nine points ahead on the competition table, with three to play, wins against the Dynaboars – against whom they have won five of the last six – and Shizuoka Blue Revs next week will do it for Keisuke Sawake’s

men, regardless of results elsewhere. The chasing pack will be aware that the Eagles visit the Wild Knights on the last weekend though, so any missteps before then could be gratefully seized on.

Although Blue Revs are among those who still hold a mathematical chance of qualifying, that could have been erased by the time Yokohama play, with their fate resting on a maximum haul against third-placed Tokyo Suntory

Sungoliath on Friday night. Among a multitude of scenarios still possible in the semi-final formula, the best the Blue Revs can do – if they achieve three bonus-point wins – is 46 points, a total Yokohama will surpass by beating the Dynaboars.

For Sungoliath, the numbers are much simpler. Repeat January’s performance against the Blue Revs, where Suntory won 29-25, and they will have their passport stamped for the semi-finals, joining the Wild Knights and Brave Lupus in the final four. It’s a prospect they will fancy, having won the last 13 times they have faced Shizuoka, as well as winning five of their last six outings in this season’s league.

The Spoiler Spears

Although last weekend’s head-scratching draw with the Blue Revs didn’t officially deny semi-final entry to Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, the locks are being worked on, and the door will probably be shut by the time they run out against Kobe on Sunday, with any points picked up by the Eagles a day earlier knocking Frans Ludeke’s men out of the title chase. In truth, their ‘card’ has probably been marked for a few weeks but with the pressure now off, the outgoing champions could become an even more dangerous beast.

After all, they haven’t been playing badly, denied wins in the last play of the game in each of the last two weeks. They also have a great record against Kobe, having won the last five, which is the longest winning sequence either side has had in their relationship since Top League began in 2003. Which all adds to the pressure on the Steelers, whose season is over should they lose after the Eagles have won the day before.

It was hoped the arrival of ex-Wallaby coach Dave Rennie, World Rugby Player of the Year and All Black star Ardie Savea and Super Rugby flyhalf Bryn Gatland, along with the return of All Black second-rower Brodie Retallick, would provide the impetus for a much-improved showing by the 2018 champions, after last season’s ninth.

This it has done, but with the side failing to nail the big moments when a semi-final berth was on the line, most notably in the last two weeks against Suntory and Toshiba, a finish outside of the top four – should it end that way – is going to be a disappointment, especially given Savea won’t return next year.

Disappointment is also the word to be used summing up the respective campaigns of Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo and Hanazono Kintetsu Liners, who meet with surviving the Replacement Battle now the season-defining objective.

Although the Black Rams could still avoid the promotion/relegation series, they would need the ninth-placed
Dynaboars to lose their remaining three, which seems unlikely given their most recent performances, which have
been competitive against opponents ranked higher on the table.
Ricoh can help themselves, as they face the Dynaboars in the following round, but with Mitsubishi playing Kintetsu
on the final weekend of the regular season, Black Rams coach Peter Hewat could be forgiven for already having
one eye on the Division Two grading round which begins on Saturday.

Divisions Two & Three – Coronation time for Hino

An outcome that has looked likely for much of the season will be confirmed on Saturday if Hino Red Dolphins take care of Kurita Water Gush Akishima.
Division Three returns after a week off, with the section’s frontrunners 80 minutes away from claiming the title. Four points from the game would mean the best their fellow promotee, Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks, can achieve by winning their final two games with bonus points – one of which is against Hino – would be to tie the league leaders on the ladder.

This wouldn’t be enough given the massive point’s differential between the two sides in the Red Dolphins’ favour. With neither side facing a Replacement Battle series, the section title and – in Hino’s case – the chance to complete the season unbeaten, are the targets that remain.

Further down the table, a Replacement Battle opportunity awaits the third-place getter, which makes it vitally important for Water Gush, who are fourth, to get something out of Saturday’s contest.

Although Wycliff Palu’s side play this weekend while third placed Mazda SkyActivs Hiroshima do not, Water Gush trail their rivals by seven points, which would be a lot to make up in the two games that will remain for each side.

The Replacement Battle is also the focus for Division Two, where the three-way grading rounds begin. This will decide the ranking of the Division One opponents the division’s three highest finishers will face, while also determining which of the bottom three defend their status against the challenger from Division Three.

At the top end, the series begins with Saturday’s game between Urayasu D-Rocks and Toyota Industries Corporation Shuttles Aichi; a contest that carries a fascinating subplot after their first meeting of the season was abandoned early in the second half due to a nearby lightning strike, which blew up the Shuttles’ chances in a contest that was awarded to D-Rocks due to their 10-7 lead at the time.

While the Division Two champions prevailed in the second meeting as well, once again there was little to separate the sides, with D-Rocks’ 19-14 win suggesting another tight affair is in the offing in the rivalries’ third instalment. Although superstar Israel Folau has returned from injury for D-Rocks since the two sides last met, the Shuttles will feel wronged by the affair, and injustice can be a powerful motivation.

The road to safety for the bottom three of the division kicks off on Friday night when Red Hurricanes Osaka host
Japan Steel Kamaishi Seawaves. Coach Matt Cockbain, the ex-Wallaby backrower, will have used the division’s two-week break to try and determine what went wrong when the Hurricanes fell to Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex by 16 points last time, having only just snapped a six-game losing run the week before!

The Hurricanes ended that run with a win over Friday night’s opponents, but last month’s 38-33 win showed the level of threat the Seawaves hold, with the visitors resisting a late charge which saw Kamaishi close to within a converted try, after having trailed 19-0 inside the first 15 minutes. The Seawaves also gave the Osaka-based side a scare in their first meeting, getting to within two points in a 27-25 defeat despite playing all but five minutes of the game with 14 men.

Barrett bids for a strong finish: It’s fair to say the second coming of Beauden Barrett to Japan Rugby League One hasn’t been as glittering as the first. The star All Black flyhalf scored seven tries during a stint with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in the last Top League in 2020-21, where he was the competition’s leading point-scorer with 168 from 10 matches and guided his side to the final.

Toyota’s 30-24 win over Mitsubishi last weekend was notable for Barrett’s first two tries for the club, after he returned following a one-week suspension from the red card he received against Shizuoka. It’s perhaps indicative of the difficulties Verblitz have had this term that the former World Rugby Player of the Year’s return since he joined is just 86 points, including his two tries.

This has been achieved from the same number of appearances as he made for Suntory.

Another Aussie ‘Blossom’ in full bloom: The Saitama trio of backrowers Jack Cornelsen and Ben Gunter, and centre Dylan Riley, all took the Japanese pathway to international rugby after finding the route blocked in Australia.

Towering second rower and clubmate Esei Haangana could be next. Returning to the Wild Knights last weekend after two months out injured, the 24-year-old produced a storming 50 minutes against the Black Rams, including a try. The timing is good news for the Wild Knights as they prepare for the playoffs, but the intensity of play at the back end of the season is also an opportunity that both Brave Blossoms coach Eddie Jones and his Wallaby counterpart Joe Schmidt may take to keep an eye on the former Melbourne Rebel.

While Haangana is not yet Japan qualified, he arrived in the country three years ago and would meet the eligibility criteria to play for the Brave Blossoms on residency well before the next Rugby World Cup, should he opt to pursue that option.

Eagles on the up: Things just keep getting better for the Eagles. They could be confirmed as a semi-final qualifier as soon as Sunday night if results go their way and have the cavalry returning just in time.

Springbok centre Jesse Kriel is back from a broken bone in his right thumb that was sustained in mid-January, and caused enough angst to see the Eagles whistle up fellow Springbok Rohan Janse van Rensburg from the Sharks as a stand in. Janse van Rensburg will start against the Dynaboars on Saturday, but Kriel can be expected to take the pitch at some point, having been named on the bench.

The smoke signals around star Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, who had mid-season surgery on his knee, have also hinted at an unlikely return before the season is out. While Yokohama has won five of their last six without the South African pair, the big game nous of the two-time Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks – if de Klerk also makes it back – is going to come in handy should the Eagles take the final step to the semi-finals.

Double D: Warner Dearns already has tries against both the All Blacks and England in his short test career, along with a man of the match performance during the Rugby World Cup, but if both sides need any further evidence as to how much of a threat the 22-year-old will be when they arrive in Japan later in the year, they need only catch a video of last weekend’s draw with Kobe.

At times, the Steelers would have been forgiven for believing there were two Dearns’ on the field, such was his impact for Brave Lupus, both in contact, but also in meddling with the Kobe
lineout, which became a liability at times under the pressure he exerted.

Dearns goes up against a Francois Mostert-run lineout operating at league high 91 percent on Sunday when Toshiba visits Mie Honda Heat. It might be good preparation for a contest with another Springbok second rower, Lood de Jager, who lies in wait should Brave Lupus run into the Wild Knights in the playoffs.

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