Official Review | Japan Rugby League One (Round 14)

Official Review | Japan Rugby League One (Round 14)

Any mathematical chance of Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay staying in the race for the semi finals of Japan Rugby League

One might have been extinguished before they kicked off today, but the defending champions have still had a decisive say in their final makeup after beating Kobelco Kobe Steelers 39-29 at Hokkaido’s Sapporo Dome. Kubota’s win, which was good news for third-placed Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath and Yokohama Canon Eagles in fourth spot, confirmed the semi-finalists, eliminating 2018 champions Kobe, who were bidding to return to the playoffs for the first time since they won the title. While injuries haven’t helped Frans Ludeke’s men in their failed title defence, he had all three of his international stars – Welsh fullback Liam Williams, Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley and All Black hooker Dane Coles – on deck today and it showed as the Spears dominated, out-scoring their rivals five-tries-to-three in a win that was more comprehensive than the final scoreline suggests. The boot of the competition’s leading point-scorer, Bryn Gatland, kept his side in the game, converting both Steelers tries as well as kicking five penalty goals, to finish with 19 points. The Kobe flyhalf is now within nine of becoming the first player to surpass 200 points since Japan Rugby League One began three seasons ago. He leads Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights flyhalf Rikiya Matsuda by 12 on the individual rankings. It was largely thanks to Gatland that, despite having scored just one try, Kobe tied the game 22-22 entering the final quarter. The Spears moved ahead again through a 63rd minute penalty goal by Foley, before two tries in the following 10 minutes settled the issue.

Past weekend's results


Although Kobe finally managed a second try three minutes from time, it was too late to forestall their exit from the playoff calculations. The Steelers’ coach Dave Rennie had surprisingly used World Player of the Year Ardie Savea off the bench, injecting the All Black backrower into the game at halftime, but although his side only trailed 19-16 at the re-start, the ploy didn’t work for the ex-Wallaby boss with his star man largely contained throughout the second half. While another big name international, Los Pumas backrower Pablo Matera, was unable to impact on the result either, Mie Honda Heat were just happy to have their star man back, as the ex-Argentine captain made his first appearance since last year’s Replacement Battle, after returning from the Rugby World Cup with a leg injury. Honda couldn’t quite get over the line in a dour struggle against an understrength Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo during today’s 8-7 defeat, but the 30-year-old got through a solid 40-minute workout, and his return is a massive boost for ex-Italy coach Kieran Crowley’s side two weeks out from the defence of their Division One status in the Replacement Battle. With Brave Lupus already qualified for the semi-finals, and a massive Fuchu derby against Sungoliath coming up on Saturday, coach Todd Blackadder chose to rest several players, making eight alterations to the starting XV that drew 40-40 with Kobe last week. The changes, and a fierce challenge from Honda, inevitably led to some clunkiness in the Toshiba performance, with both sides struggling during a scoreless first half. A try by Honda winger Kanta Watanabe straight after the re-start finally produced some points, and it took until the 71st minute for Brave Lupus to respond, when hooker and skipper Mamoru Harada scored his fourth try of the season. Although Hayata Nakao missed the conversion, he made no mistake when another chance presented itself four minutes later, kicking the penalty goal that gave his side the win. Heat and Hanazono Kintetsu Liners are confirmed for the promotion/relegation playoff, and Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo’s hopes of avoiding the series are on life support after falling to defeat in Osaka today. Despite trailing 14-3 after the opening 20 minutes, Kintetsu outscored their rivals 31-9 for the remainder of the contest, holding the Black Rams try-less during the last hour, while scoring four themselves to record a 34-23 victory. Although not enough to lift them off the bottom of the table, Kintetsu’s maiden win – the last side across the three divisions to win a match this season – was a much-needed confidence boost after a difficult campaign, and came a week earlier than last term, when their sole victory of the regular season was achieved on its penultimate weekend. Ricoh’s Australian coach Peter Hewat will be perplexed as to how his side lost control of the game after a confident start, and the defeat leaves the Black Rams needing to win their final two matches – both with try-scoring bonus points – to have any hope of steering clear of the Replacement Battle. The first of those is on Saturday against the ninth-placed Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars, who will finish above the Black Rams by virtue of having won more matches overall, should the two sides be level on log points when the regular season ends.

Springbok centre Jesse Kriel made an encouraging return to duty yesterday, coming off the bench to score as the Eagles ran in four second half tries without reply in a 43-19 win over the Dynaboars, which was enough to confirm back-to-back semi-finals following Kobe’s subsequent defeat. Sagamihara went try-for-try with Yokohama in the opening period, with the second of winger Ben Paltridge’s fivepointers giving his side the lead after half-an-hour. A try two minutes later by Shunta Nakamura turned the tide, levelling the game at the break, before the Yokohama hooker crossed the goal-line twice more after play resumed, completing his second hattrick of the season in the 56th minute. The 30-year-old’s treble helped overturn a 19-14 deficit, with the Eagles ahead 29-19 by the time Nakamura had completed his try-scoring ‘work’. Kriel, who had been out since mid-January due to a broken thumb, made his reappearance in the 54th minute, and was a try-scorer 14 minutes later, pushing the Eagles beyond two-scores, while also setting up a try-scoring bonus point. While Kobe weren’t eliminated until today’s defeat, Yokohama’s 10th win of the season had already administered the final blow to the slim semi-final chances of Toyota Verblitz, Shizuoka Blue Revs and Kubota. Saturday’s other match saw the Wild Knights clinch the top qualifying spot from the regular season for the fourth time since the Japanese game resumed after Covid following an impressive 40-7 win over Verblitz

League table


While both sides featured several big-name internationals, it was the Wild Knights’ foreign stars who made the headlines, with each of Springbok second rower Lood de Jager and Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete scoring first half doubles, as the visitors raced to a 26-7 lead, despite playing into the wind. Just as impressive was the Wild Knights’ defence, who exerted such pressure that Toyota had nowhere to go, coughing up numerous turnovers as their attack ran out of ideas, and resorted to desperate off-the-cuff plays. The performance highlighted the scale of the task awaiting the club’s new coaching addition, former All Black coach Ian Foster, when he arrives next season. It also served notice once again to playoff opponents that the Saitama-based side, who stretched their unbeaten season to 14 wins, are going to take some stopping in next month’s sudden death phase. De Jager, who only returned from long-term injury in round five, scored his fifth and sixth tries from nine appearances, while Koroibete has now scored twice in each of the last three weeks, having scored just two tries in 11 appearances prior to that. On Friday night, Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath needed a penalty goal by flyhalf Mikiya Takamoto, four minutes from time, to secure a 31-31 tie with Shizuoka Blue Revs.

Bidding to break a 13-game losing sequence against Sungoliath, the Blue Revs overturned a 14-7 halftime deficit to draw level 21-21 entering the last quarter. The two sides traded tries and penalty goals in the run to the finish, with Blue Revs prop Sean Vete looking to have won it for his side when he scored his maiden try in Japan Rugby League One, six minutes from time, before Takamoto’s late intervention allowed third-placed Sungoliath to share the points. Although subsequent results saw Sungoliath’s semi-final ticket booked, they lead Yokohama by just two points with games against Brave Lupus and the Spears to come and may need to win them both to avoid the prospect of facing the Wild Knights on the first weekend of the playoffs. Saitama beat Suntory in each of the last Top League and inaugural Japan Rugby League One deciders. The draw was remarkably Shizuoka’s fourth from 30 matches in the last two seasons, following last weekend’s tie with the Spears, which added to stalemates against the Eagles and Dynaboars in the second edition of the league. Shizuoka has now avoided defeat in eight of their 14 matches, which is the one more than each of the two sides ranked immediately above them, Toyota and Kubota, with their six wins already one more than the club achieved in each of the first two seasons of Japan Rugby League One.

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