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It's not doom and gloom after Kolbe's injury

JAPAN RUGBY LEAGUE ONE, ROUND 15 PREVIEW: Brave Lupus Tokyo and Tokyo Sungoliath might both have qualified for next month’s Japan Rugby League One semifinals, but don’t be fooled.

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West Tokyo supremacy matters to those associated with the clubs almost as much as a league title, so both sides will be going at it full throttle when they meet on Saturday at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium downtown in the Japanese capital.

While Brave Lupus captured the early honours, taking out the first derby of the season, that success counts for little as the two teams meet again.

With a semifinal just three weeks away, Brave Lupus not having gone ‘back-to-back’ in the derby since 2010-11, and the potential for a further date in the knockouts, this game is arguably the most important either side has played so far this season.

Brave Lupus coach Todd Blackadder certainly betrayed its importance when he made eight changes to the side that squeaked past the Heat last weekend, from that which had held on for a courageous draw against Kobe Steelers the previous weekend.

With Richie Mo’unga away on bereavement leave, Takuro Matsunaga and Hayata Nakao have had a crack at leading the backline scheming, with Nakao getting the nod to start at No.10 again during the All Blacks’ continued absence.

On the gold side of the Fuchu ‘divide’, Sungoliath return to the site of last Friday’s thrilling draw with Blue Revs having lost just twice – to runaway league leaders Wild Knights, and fellow semifinalists Yokohama Eagles – since falling to Brave Lupus.

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Despite losing All Black loose forward Sam Cane and Springbok wing Cheslin Kolbe to injury, Sungoliath have qualified for their third consecutive league one semifinal with two weeks to spare, which reflects the consistency of their performance over the campaign.

Their three defeats – 19-26 to Brave Lupus, 20-24 to Wild Knights, and 35-37 to the Eagles – have all been by small margins showing that they were in the fight till the finish and could easily have wound up on the other side of the ledger.

Although the action at Fuchu takes centre stage in the penultimate weekend of the regular season, there are plenty of other subplots at play, with all Division One games on Saturday, as clubs jostle for a best place in the finishing order.

The Eagles face a Verblitz outfit smarting after last Saturday’s 33-point drubbing by the Wild Knights.

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Things could hardly have gone better for Yokohama last weekend: star Springbok midfielder Jesse Kriel made a triumphant return from injury, while the win over Sagamihara Dynaboars coupled with results elsewhere, saw their semifinal ticket stamped before the visit to Saitama in the last round.

There is still work to do though, to avoid a fourth-placed finish and a semifinal meeting with the Wild Knights, who made a mess of them 51-20 in the corresponding game last year.

Ominously, Saitama also put 50 on the Eagles on the opening day of the new season.

Yokohama’s relationship with Verblitz has typified the club’s recent change of fortunes, with wins in the last three meetings contributing to their repeat semifinal appearances, after they had lost seven of the previous eight.

With Sungoliath, who are just two points ahead, facing a difficult finish against Brave Lupus, and then the outgoing champions Spears, a win over Verblitz might yet be enough to secure Yokohama third on the final standings.

After another disappointing season, Verblitz could still claim the consolation of fifth – an improvement of one place on their finish last term – but they will have to make up two points on Kobe Steelers to achieve it.

Although the Liners will be buoyed by Sunday’s opening win of the season, which was achieved a week earlier than they managed last term, the satisfaction will have been tempered by the knowledge of an upcoming visit to Kumagaya.

The Liners lost 6-41 when they visited last season and have been beaten by the Wild Knights in their last 13 matches at all venues, by an average losing margin of 31.

As Super Rugby’s Chiefs discovered in The Cross Border Rugby, playing the Wild Knights is one of the tougher challenges in club rugby, with the Saitama-based side having incredibly won 85 of their last 88 league games, while another was drawn.

Even though Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans has taken the opportunity to rest a few of his frontliners before the semifinals, the Liners’ task won’t be any easier, with the second-string desperate to give the boss food for thought as he assesses his semifinal combination.

Japan Rugby League One Fixtures – Round 15:

Division One

Saturday, April 27:
Sagamihara Dynaboars v Black Rams Tokyo
Brave Lupus Tokyo v Tokyo Sungoliath
Saitama Wild Knights v Liners
Kobe Steelers v Blue Revs
Verblitz v Yokohama Eagles
Spears v Heat

Division Two

Sunday, April 28:
Voltex v Seawaves
Green Rockets v Aichi

Division Three

Saturday, April 27:
Red Regulions v Akishima

Sunday, April 28:
Hiroshima v Red Dolphins

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