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Japan league marks return of Springbok lock

PREVIEW: The Japan Rugby League One Round Five marks the return of Springbok lock Lood de Jager this weekend.

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It is a significant moment in the career of De Jager as he makes his return after being sidelined since August by a medical condition.

The 31-year-old, who featured in a training game for the Saitama Wild Knights development side last weekend, was forced to miss the recent World Cup due to the condition, denying him the opportunity to attend his third tournament after being a part of the 2015, and victorious 2019, teams.

De Jager played his most recent top-level game for the Springboks against New Zealand in Auckland at the end of July. The 59-cap South African, who is in his second season in Japan with the Wild Knights, has appeared for the club on 14 occasions, most recently in last year’s final.

Another interesting affair will see Quade Cooper and Will Genia face Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith in a typical old school Bledisloe Affair. It’s doubtful Cooper and Genia would know how many times they were opposed by Barrett and Smith in the test arena.

For the record, the two halves combinations – perhaps surprisingly given three of the four have played in excess of 100 tests, while Cooper has played 84 – have only been direct starting protagonists once in Bledisloe Tests, when New Zealand won 29-9 at Wellington in 2016.

Even so, their first match up in Japan adds an extra dimension to a contest that is high on motivation for both teams, but for different reasons.

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After narrowly losing to the Dynaboars on opening day, Kintetsu have shipped 156 points in the last three rounds, with the 27-point loss to the Black Rams the most disappointing, given Ricoh was also winless before the game.

Breaking that cycle, at least by being competitive, is critical given Verblitz are the start of a run for Kintetsu that consists of Blue Revs, Spears, Brave Lupus and Sungoliath in the next four rounds.

Verblitz is two from four but will probably feel that they should have four wins, having lost to Yokohama by two before surrendering a 27-3 advantage at Kumagaya last weekend. With a showdown against Brave Lupus, which always carries plenty of spice, a week away, a convincing display is required.

This season might still be in its infancy, but the stakes are steadily rising for South African coach Frans Ludeke’s Kubota Spears and Kobe Steelers as they meet in Kobe on Sunday.

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The competitiveness of this season’s competition won’t have been lost on the Spears, with Ludeke having seen his side fall to three defeats from their first four, the sole win achieved against the struggling Mie Honda Heat.

With both having lost their last two, neither can afford to fall further behind the pacesetters, especially having set off on their respective journeys with high hopes.

The arrival of ex-Wallabies and Chiefs coach Dave Rennie, the return of All Black second rower Brodie Retallick, the acquisition of recently crowned World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea, as well as the service of a now fully fit ex-All Black midfielder Ngane Laumape, was all intended to fuel a new beginning for the 2018 Top League champions.

But it has been hard going so far.

Narrow losses to Brave Lupus Tokyo as well as Sungoliath have highlighted the depth of this year’s competition, while underlining the size of the task ahead of Kobe as they seek to break into the semi-finals for the first time since their championship success.

Losing Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley before last weekend’s tie with Brave Lupus didn’t help, but the narrow margin of defeat (four points) against an opponent who is simply flying suggests an upturn in fortunes is not far away.

Kubota boasts the third best defensive record in the league, but this will be tested by Kobe, who are just a point behind Saitama, in terms of the best attacking figures.

Another big question this weekend is if Shizuoka Blue Revs can now ‘do it’ to Tokyo Sungoliath in the feature match on Saturday’s menu in Japan?

Having begun their climb up the ladder by beating the defending champions, the Blue Revs now find themselves sixth, just three points outside of the semi-final positions.

One of the key features of the ‘jigsaw’ Shizuoka seem to have solved revolves around their goalkicking, whose limitations last term were illustrated by scrumhalf Bryn Hall, who had barely kicked during his long career in New Zealand, finding himself lead off kicker on several occasions.

It was no fault of the former Maori All Black that this did not go well, but the form of flyhalf Kenta Iemura, who last weekend became the first player in the league to surpass 50 points for the campaign, seems to have addressed the weakness.

With Springbok star Kwagga Smith leading the way, already having picked up four tries, and the influence of prized recruit Charles Piutau growing every week, the Blue Revs are in good shape as they line up third-placed Sungoliath, whose players have ambitions driving them on two fronts.

As well as league performance, the Suntory cast have just 160 minutes of playing time left to claim a place in the side’s match day squad for the Cross Border clash against the (Auckland) Blues from Super Rugby on February 3.

These minutes are especially important for 22-year-old flyhalf Mikiya Takamoto as the club awaits the arrival of the Argentine star Nicolas Sanchez.

With Suntory left undermanned in the key position after the loss of their off-season recruit from Wales, Gareth Anscombe, Takamoto has stepped up, collecting 49 points from his first four appearances in the competition.

Players from Saitama Wild Knights and Yokohama Eagles may also have Cross Border selection in the back of their minds as they confront Sagamihara Dynaboars and Black Rams Tokyo respectively.

Sunday’s other matches see winless Hanazono Kintetsu Liners host Toyota Verblitz, while Mie Honda Heat travels to Brave Lupus.

The return of Quade Cooper didn’t quite go according to plan last weekend, and Kintetsu coach Shogo Mukai will be hoping the Wallaby star can find his best as the side searches for its first win of the campaign.

After their dramatic collapse at Saitama, Verblitz are in the same position as all their fellow mid-table residents, needing to win to make sure they don’t fall too far behind the leaders.

This is something that has derailed several seasons recently for Toyota, with the memories of last term especially acute when they gave themselves virtually no chance after dropping four of their first five matches.

Japan Rugby League One Fixtures Round Five

Division One
Saturday, January 13

Sagamihara Dynaboars v Wild Knights; Sagamihara
Blue Revs v Tokyo Sungoliath; Shizuoka
Eagles v Black Rams Tokyo; Kanagawa

Sunday, January 14

Kobe Steelers v Kubota Spears; Kobe
Kintetsu Liners v Verblitz; Osaka
Brave Lupus Tokyo v Heat; Tokyo

Division Two
Saturday, January 13

Red Hurricanes Osaka v Green Rockets Tokatsu; Osaka
Urayasu D-Rocks v Shuttles Aichi; Chiba

Division Three
Saturday, January 13

Koto Blue Sharks v SkyActivs Hiroshima; Yumunoshima
Red Dolphins v Chugoku Red Regulions; Tokyo

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