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Big Bok midfield battle in Japan as Faf returns to training

SEMIFINAL PREVIEW: Just how long can this continue?

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It’s now over a decade since Yokohama Eagles last beat the Wild Knights. That was a 23-18 win in 2013.

In the 15 games since, the Eagles have been shot down each time, often by large margins.

This tally includes last year’s semifinal where, after a stirring first half which they ended ahead by two, Yokohama totally fluffed their lines, capitulating to the tune of a 36-3 second period, as the six-time champions stormed home to win 51-20.

Big scores have been the order of the day in the meetings so far this season too, with the Wild Knights following up a 53-12 win on opening day with a 43-14 success to close the qualifying rounds; a win that was the team’s 16th in-a-row, completing a third unbeaten regular season in four years.

Conversely, the Eagles bring losing form to Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in downtown Tokyo on Saturday for the season’s first semifinal, having dropped their last two.

The last time Yokohama lost three straight was three years ago.

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Eagles coach Keisuke Sawake – who twice beat his Wild Knights counterpart Robbie Deans when winning the 2016-17 and 2017-18 titles with Tokyo Sungoliath – has not been helped by injury this season.

Eagles team semifinal 2024

Springbok stars, centre Jesse Kriel and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, were instrumental in last year’s run to the semifinals, but have missed a large chunk of this season.

While Kriel has returned in time for the play-offs, his fellow World Cup winner is reportedly back in training with the club but hasn’t made it back onto the field in time.

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Kriel is also set for a reunion with his Springbok midfield partner Damian de Allende, who plays for the Wild Knights.

During South Africa’s World Cup success in France last year, the duo formed a dynamic midfield combination.

Fellow Springbok, lock Lood de Jager, has been one of the stars of the Wild Knights’ campaign.

After starting late as he recovered from a rare heart disorder that forced him to bypass last year’s successful World Cup defence by South Africa, the 31-year-old has been bouncing around like a young buck (or is that Bok?), relishing the fast pace, hard grounds, and expansive play that have been at the core of the Wild Knights’ success.

De Jager announced his return with a try against Sagamihara Dynaboars on Match Day Five and got the taste for it: after three weeks, he had scored four.

He enters the semifinals with six tries from 10 games, and displaying the type of set-piece dominance that won’t have gone unnoticed by returning Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, and quite probably – ahead of their much anticipated mid-year tour – Irish coach Andy Farrell as well.

The Wild Knights arrive at the knock-outs comfortably the highest point-scorers in the league, having run up 747 at an average of 47 per game.

Given this is 229 points more than Yokohama accumulated in the regular season, it is somewhat surprising that the Eagles have two players ranked among the top 10 try-scorers in the league, the Wild Knights just one.

Hooker Shunta Nakamura is second for tries among forwards with 11, teammate and explosive centre Viliame Takayawa one ahead, and fifth among all players, on 12.

For the Wild Knights, Brave Blossoms centre Dylan Riley – the joint-highest try-scorer in the maiden edition of JRLO with 13 – ranks second this year, despite scoring one more try than he did then.

While Riley is just one of numerous on-field attacking threats, Saitama has arguably its most potent weapon in the coaching box, with Deans boasting a semifinal record unrivalled in professional club rugby.

Wild-knights-team-2024-semifinal

Since he began with his home province in New Zealand’s national provincial championship in 1997, the 64-year-old has presided over 17 semifinals through his time coaching Canterbury, the Crusaders, and the Wild Knights.

The New Zealander has won 15 of them, an astonishing 88 percent success rate, going on to win the title 11 times.

Five of those titles have been won during his association with the Wild Knights, with success in the maiden Japan Rugby League One levelling the number of championships he achieved in Super Rugby.

Ominously for Yokohama, his team has won all eight semifinals they have contested since he began his association with the Wild Knights.

Will Saturday be the ninth?

Brave Lupus Tokyo v Tokyo Sungoliath

What’s been before doesn’t matter.

Although Brave Lupus Tokyo has won each of the previous two Fuchu derbies this season, neither result will count for much if they can’t complete a hat-trick on Sunday to end the season of their west Tokyo rivals, Tokyo Sungoliath.

The two last met in a semifinal two years ago, when Sungoliath reversed a 3-27 defeat from the penultimate round of the regular season to beat Brave Lupus 30-24, 20 days later, in the first knock-out round.

While, along with the Wild Knights, Sungoliath have been the dominant force of the professional club era in Japan, you must go back to the 2017-18 season to find the last of their five titles.

Sungoliath have been beaten in three finals in the time since, losing to Kobe in 2018-19, and then to the Wild Knights back-to-back in the final Top League and maiden Japan Rugby League One.

They fell 18-24 to the Spears in the semifinals last term despite a battling performance after Brave Blossoms lock Hendrick Tui was sent off in the fifth minute for foul play.

The game remained in the balance until the final moments, with a converted try by the former All Black Aaron Cruden at the end of regulation time drawing his side to within another of victory before the eventual champions saw out the referee’s minutes to move onto the final weekend.

Perhaps ominously for Sungoliath, the defeat was their third against Kubota for the campaign; a feat Brave Lupus will replicate if it succeeds at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.

Despite losing five times in the regular season, Sungoliath has had excuses, having to do without the services of star internationals, Springbok wing Cheslin Kolbe and All Black loose forward Sam Cane, for the bulk of the season, after losing Wales flyhalf Gareth Anscombe before a ball had even been kicked.

Making the semifinals despite those difficulties will provide the players with confidence and give them a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude, which spells danger for Todd Blackadder’s men.

This week’s confirmation that Cane will extend his time in Fuchu after agreeing a three-year deal adds to the ‘feel good’ factor in the Sungoliath camp.

The recruitment of World Cup Final starting All Blacks, Richie Mo’unga and Shannon Frizell, along with the return of warrior-like Brave Blossoms veteran Michael Leitch to the captaincy, have been major factors in a season that has seen Brave Lupus beaten just once, and that was a close contest against the Wild Knights.

Directed by Mo’unga, who had won seven titles by the time he left the Crusaders, Brave Lupus have proved a slick operation, and their depth was illustrated by the three wins they gathered while the star flyhalf was absent on bereavement leave, which included the second win over Sungoliath.

As well as his ruthless attitude in contact, former Highlander Frizell has added an extra string to his bow in Japan as a try-scorer.

The loose forward ended the regular season with nine from 15 outings; a statistic made even more impressive by the fact he scored just 19 from 68 matches with the Highlanders in Super Rugby and eight in his 33 tests.

Like his All Black teammate Mounga, who is the league’s fifth-leading point-scorer with 145 from 13 appearances, Frizell came to Japan chasing titles, not numbers.

Even so, the number three, in terms of Brave Lupus’ Fuchu derby wins for the season, is a statistic the 30-year-old would happily accept come Sunday night.

*This weekend also sees the first leg of four matches in The Replacement Battle, with three games on Saturday, and a further match on Sunday.

The promotion/relegation series sees three positions in next season’s Division One up for grabs, alongside one position in an enlarged eight-team Division Two.

Japan Rugby League One Semifinal Fixtures:

Saturday, May 18:

Saitama Wild Knights v Yokohama Eagles – Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo

Sunday, May 19:

Brave Lupus Tokyo v Tokyo Sungoliath – Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo

The Replacement Battle – First Leg:

Saturday, May 18:

Division Two v One:
D-Rocks v Liners – Tokyo
Aichi v Heat – Aichi
Green Rockets Tokatsu v Black Rams Tokyo – Chiba

Sunday, May 19:

Division Two v Three:
Seawaves v Akishima – Iwate

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