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Japan league interrupted by visiting Super Rugby teams

PREVIEW: Matches in Round Six of the Japan Rugby League One will interrupted by two visiting Super Rugby sides which will result in a split round, with three matches to be played this weekend.

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This is to cater for the Cross Border programme against the visiting Super Rugby sides from New Zealand, where two matches will take place on each of February 3 and February 10.

The games against the Super Rugby teams is expected to become an annual fixture and the start of perhaps a greater relationship between the respective clubs.

Last year’s Division One semi-finalists, Saitama Wild Knights and Tokyo Sungoliath, will be involved in those matches against the (Auckland) Blues and the Gallagher (Waikato) Chiefs.

The schedule will be completed on the weekend of January 27 and 28.

With these the last outings prior to the teams’ Cross Border engagements against the (Auckland) Blues and Gallagher (Waikato) Chiefs respectively, the desire for a strong final dress rehearsal ahead of those historic occasions will not be too far from the minds.

This will offer Springboks Lood de Jager and Damian de Allende, playing for the Wild Knights, the opportunity to once again face some Super Rugby competition.

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Although Saitama have had regular exposure to the Queensland Reds in recent seasons through their high-performance partnership, losing by just two when they visited Brisbane at the end of last year, these have been development games, fielding sides filled as much with second tier players as they were seasoned front-liners.

Playing a strong and motivated Chiefs line-up, which is in the ‘serious’ stages of its Super Rugby preparation, is something different, and a prospect sure to be eagerly awaited by the seasoned campaigners – both local and foreign – who populate the Wild Knights squad.

Former Melbourne Rebels second rower Esei Haangana gets his chance to impress, having been handed the captaincy for the first time in league matches on Saturday, while his partner in the engine room of the scrum, De Jager, continues his comeback after five months on the sideline.

The prospect of Cross Border gives Saturday’s final shakedown against Mie Honda Heat an added edge, which is probably not what Kieran Crowley’s men need as the promoted side tries again for its first win of the season.

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The former Italy coach, who joined Heat after completing his commitments at the World Cup, inherited a side that while confident after promotion, was entering largely uncharted waters.

The loss of former Argentine skipper Pablo Matera, who was a massive figure in the club’s promotion campaign last term, has added to Crowley’s challenge, although it’s the Heat’s inability to ‘stay in the fight’ for long enough that has ultimately been their undoing so far.

Heat has often been competitive for periods, but then leaked points in clusters, which has destroyed any prospect of securing a favourable result.

This is certainly not something they can afford to do against a Wild Knights outfit averaging 54 points a game, who simply destroyed Sagamihara Dynaboars in its previous outings.

For that reason, it is probably a positive thing for Sagamihara that they do not have to stew on their 21-81 defeat, having the chance to prove the result was rogue straight away, rather than waiting two weeks for another crack.

That ‘good news’ is tempered by the fact that they are going to have to do it against a Sungoliath side that has put together a strong body of work, interrupted only by their narrow defeat against Brave Lupus Tokyo in the Fuchu derby.

After being heavily reliant on try-scoring wonder Seiya Ozaki last season, the 18-try wing has scored just four this term, yet Suntory (25) still sit fourth for overall tries in the competition, highlighting an attack that appears to have more versatility, with greater threat across the field.

This is something that the Blues, as well as the Dynaboars, will be taking note of, ahead of the next two games.

Sagamihara’s defensive statistics had been acceptable prior to last weekend, which left coach Glen Delany with a quandary as to whether to tinker with his systems, or just write the game off as a bad day at the office.

Given he has made six changes to his starting XV, as well as one positional, indications are he chose the former.

How Delany’s troops respond, especially given they have now lost three on the trot, may tell us a lot about what the team’s trajectory for the rest of the campaign is going to be.

The sole game among the lower divisions for the weekend is a Division Three clash between Blue Sharks and Kurita Akishima, where the Blue Sharks will be anxious to make amends after Saturday’s surprise defeat at the hand of Mazda Hiroshima.

With two points separating the pair on the log, defeat would drop the Blue Sharks to second-from-bottom; a prospect that would have been almost unthinkable when they began their campaign, having shown their ambition with the signing of Lima Sopoaga.

The dual international’s absence through injury last weekend was undoubtedly a contributing factor in their performance and missing him again won’t help.

Japan league interrupted by visiting Super Rugby teams

Division One

Saturday, January 20

Wild Knights v Heat; at Kumagaya
Sagamihara Dynaboars v Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath; at Sagamihara

Division Three

Saturday, January 20
Blue Sharks v Kurita Akishima; at (Yumunoshima) Tokyo

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