Cooper and Folau headline promotion-relegation battle in Japan
PREVIEW: The time has come for the big names to step it up as the Replacement Battle for Japan Rugby League One kicks off in Mie on Friday.
Starting with the clash between Mie Honda Heat and NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu – a repeat of one of last year’s contests in the series – six clubs will do battle over two legs for places in next year’s Division One.
Four others will go toe-to-toe in a contest for two positions in Division Two.
Having lost just three matches this term, all to unbeaten Urayasu D-Rocks, Heat will approach the series with confidence as they look to avenge last year’s defeat, where the matches were split, but Green Rockets promoted due to a 21-point win on differentials.
While Honda lost its final outing in Division Two’s Finalisation series, falling 48-28 to D-Rocks, Heat was missing former Argentine skipper Pablo Matera, who is back in the starting XV this week.
The 29-year-old has been a formidable force for the Heat this season, especially when bossing the breakdown.
A Super Rugby winner with the Crusaders in 2022, after previously playing in France as well as his home country, Matera would add another achievement to an already impressive CV should his side gain promotion.
The highest profile clash of the weekend is on Sunday when D-Rocks – a new creation after NTT Communications consolidated its rugby activities between the former Shining Arcs and Red Hurricanes clubs – take on Hanazono Kintetsu Liners.
Kintetsu, who finished with the wooden spoon in Division One, somewhat controversially ran Wallaby star Quade Cooper on for a minute last time to make him eligible for the series, which is indicative of the stakes at play.
Having won just once this term, Cooper and his men now face an ambitious opponent that sailed through Division Two unbeaten as it begins its’ journey towards the clubs’ stated goal of becoming best in the league.
D-Rocks can call on Wallaby star Israel Folau for the series after the dual international played his first match since mid-January when he returned for 30 minutes against Honda in the last game of the Finalisation series for the Division Two teams.
The 34-year-old’s record speaks for itself since he arrived in Japan, having scored 10 tries for the Shining Arcs on debut, and five from three outings for D-Rocks at the start of the league’s second edition.
Recent news that this season will be the last for experienced halfback Greig Laidlaw will have added to the team’s overall motivation, as they look to send the long-time Scotland international out on an appropriate note.
Spaced between the other games is the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars versus Toyota Industries
Corporation Shuttles Aichi match.
This will see the Dynaboars looking to repeat last year’s success which earned them a promotion.
After starting the season promisingly, Mitsubishi aren’t in the greatest of shape.
They have won just one of the last 12 but will still fancy their chances of taking down Division Two’s third-rankers.
Ironically the roles were reversed for the Dynaboarslast term when they entered third rated from the lower division
but overcame the 10th placed side from above, the Shining Arcs, winning both games to earn promotion.
The Relegation Battle between Divisions Two and Three sees Kamaishi Seawaves, who produced its best performance of the season when thumping Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks in Finalisation, host former Wallaby Wycliff Palu’s Kurita Water Gush Akishima at the Reconstruction Stadium in Iwate.
Although the Seawaves only won twice in the regular season, the nature of their last performance suggests Water
Gush of Division Three may have their hands full by the seaside on their trip north.
The Blue Sharks won promotion in the battle last year, although they can expect a stern test from Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex.
After finishing fourth in the maiden edition of Japan Rugby League One, Voltex improved to second this term.
Having pushed the division winner’s Red Hurricanes all the way, they won’t lack confidence as they go ‘Shark hunting’.
The return legs of the Replacement Battle will be held on May 13-14.
Friday, May 5
Mie Honda Heat v NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu at Mie
Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks v Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex at Tokyo, 14.30 (JT)
Saturday, May 6
Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi v Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars at Aichi, 14.30 (JT)
Kamaishi Seawaves v Kurita Water Gush Akishima at Iwate, 12.00 (JT)
Sunday, May 7
Urayasu D-Rocks v Hanazono Kintetsu Liners at Myagi, 12.00 (JT)