Lood set for his big day in Japan
JAPAN LEAGUE PREVIEW: The second edition of Japan Rugby League One resumes this weekend after a break for the New Year holiday.
And it is set to be a start of a new chapter for a couple of players.
It’s been a whirlwind time for Jamie Shillcock.
The former England Under-20 flyhalf is playing for his third professional team in less than six months, after finding his way to Japan following the financial collapse of the Worcester Warriors, and a short stint with fellow Premiership, club Bath.
It’s been no less of a whirlwind for Shillcock’s new teammates at the recently promoted Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamahira Dynaboars.
They find themselves chasing three from three.
Coached by the former Canterbury national provincial championship-winning coach from New Zealand, Glenn Delaney, the Dynaboars have already knocked over both the Ricoh Black Rams and Toyota Verblitz.
Standing in their way now is another title-winning Canterbury coach, Robbie Deans, and the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, who are the only other back-to-back winners from the first two weekends of the league, despite having been shaky at times on each occasion.
Although they have extended their unbeaten on-field run to 34 matches, the Wild Knights rode their luck at times against each of the Brave Lupus and Blue Revs and will aiming for a more comprehensive performance in front of the Kumagaya faithful.
The addition of the 65-cap Springbok lock Lood de Jager, who will make his debut for the club, should help with their set-piece consistency.
The game between the top two kicks off Round Three, which also features key clashes between Kotaro Matsushima’s Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath and Faf de Klerk’s Yokohama Canon Eagles, as well as Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo’s match-up with the Shizuoka Blue Revs.
The star international contingents from each of the Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo-Bay, Kobelco Kobe Steelers, and Toyota Verblitz are in action on Sunday.
Although Division two teams enjoy an extra weekend off due to a bye round, it’s back to work in Division three with a match on each day of the weekend.
Saturday, January 6:
SAITAMA PANASONIC WILD KNIGHTS v MITSUBISHI HEAVY INDUSTRIES SAGAMIHIRA DYNABOARS
Kumagaya Rugby Stadium, Saitama, 12.00 (JT)
The last time these two met three years ago, the Wild Knights ran amok, with flanker David Pocock scoring the first of the visitor’s 10 tries during a 62-10 romp.
The former Wallaby star may have traded his rugby boots for a place in the Australian Senate, but his ex-teammates can expect a much stiffer resolve in the opponents they face this weekend, as opposed to their outclassed predecessors.
Sagamihara arrives full of confidence having upset star-studded Verblitz in the last round, with Shillcock having bed in well at flyhalf, while ex-Wallaby midfielder Curtis Rona has also quickly proved a tidy acquisition.
The Wild Knights have continued their habit of last term, giving opponents head starts on the scoreboard, and while they have gotten away with it thus far, the slow starts will surely catch up with them if the trend continues.
Discipline has been a major factor, but an inaccurate set-piece and poor handling also plagued their effort at Shizuoka, even though they still found a way to get the win.
It is a testament to the defending champions’ lack of fluency that outside backs, centre Dylan Riley and winger Marika Koroibete, are yet to get off the mark for the new campaign.
The internationals scored 18 tries between them last term, with the former Aussie Under-20 rep-turned Brave Blossoms centre, Riley, topping the league with 11.
After averaging four-and-a-half tries per match through the 16 completed games of the last campaign, Saitama have just five from their opening two games.
Only Brave Lupus (3) and the Black Rams (2) have scored less.
TOKYO SUNTORY SUNGOLIATH v YOKOHAMA CANON EAGLES
Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo, 14.30 (JT)
They might have dropped two competition points in the last five minutes of the 27-27 draw with Kubota in the last round, but the Yokohama Canon Eagles are already shaping as a serious title-contender, which will make them a tricky opponent for last year’s beaten finalists, Suntory.
While Sungoliath got off the ‘mark’ with a bonus-point win over the NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu last time out, they will have been hard at work since, especially with coaching advisor Eddie Jones having flown in to provide ‘hands on’ assistance.
In the Eagles, Sungoliath face an opponent full of confidence, with de Klerk quickly making himself at home.
The former Sale Sharks’ arrival has enhanced the Eagles as a force, but this is, at least in part, also due to a rejuvenated Yu Tamura.
Alongside his crack goalkicking, with 11 goals from 12 attempts so far, the Japanese veteran has also returned to the sort of form in his general play, and leadership, that saw him star at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Wales lock Cory Hill has also played a big part in the team’s fine start, now well accustomed to the more open style of rugby in his second season in Japan.
In the absence of the two key pillars of last season’s run to the final; midfielder Samu Kerevi and backline utility Damien McKenzie, it is perhaps understandable that it has taken Sungoliath a little bit of time to evolve, but the Eagles will provide a good indicator as to how much the side has moved on since the loss to Kubota on the opening weekend.
After scoring nine tries in eight appearances last term, winger Tevita Li is yet to score this time, while returning Brave Blossoms fullback Matsushima is also yet to register.
Getting those two, and the barnstorming Brave Blossoms backrower Tevita Tatafu, involved as much as possible, will bring out Suntory’s best, providing the biggest test yet of the Eagles’ title credentials.
TOSHIBA BRAVE LUPUS TOKYO v SHIZUOKA BLUE REVS
Todoroki Athletic Stadium, Kanagawa, 14.30 (JT)
With the 2024 acquisition, All Black Richie Mo’unga, set to be introduced to the fans before kick-off, the Blue Revs possibly couldn’t have picked a worse time to ride into Kanagawa, facing a buoyant opponent who have made a decent start to the new season.
Semifinalists last term, Brave Lupus picked up a bonus point at Saitama before holding off a determined challenge from the Black Rams in Round Two.
Coach Todd Blackadder will be seeking further improvement against a capable Shizuoka side still smarting after having victory snatched away in the last minute by the Wild Knights two weeks ago, when they chose to ignore a kickable penalty with less than five minutes remaining, while leading by six.
After an overthrow from the subsequent attacking lineout, the Blue Revs faithful were left aghast as the Wild Knights shifted the ball 90 metres to score the match-winning converted try.
Japan Rugby League One’s second edition is already banging out a familiar tune for the Kwagga Smith-led Blue Revs, whose narrow losses to Verblitz and Saitama mirror the last campaign, where the side dropped four of its matches by six or less.
One of those was to Toshiba, as the Blue Revs improved from a 59-28 battering first up, to push the Brave Lupus to a 33-29 score-line second time around.
A lesson from those matches is to keep a close eye on Toshiba’s Fijian winger Jone Naikabra and New Zealand-born second row Jacob Pierce, each of whom scored in both of last season’s meetings.
Smith also scored in both games, and the star Springbok forward will know the importance of rising to the occasion personally, to help fuel belief among the playing roster that the Blue Revs are good enough to achieve more than just getting close to the division heavyweights.
It’s often forgotten that it was the Toshiba Brave Lupus coach who gave the club’s headline 2024 recruit his start with the Crusaders.
With All Black legend Dan Carter, who later led Kobe to a title in Japan, having left the Crusaders as the 2016 season kicked off, Blackadder had limited options.
How do you replace one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, who had had a mortgage on the Crusaders number 10 jersey for a decade?
There was Fijian-international Ben Volavola, who had had limited prior experience with the Waratahs.
Or there was Mo’unga, two years out of school, and just 18 games into his career with Canterbury in New Zealand’s national provincial championship.
Blackadder chose Mo’unga and got his pay as the rookie started all 16 games and scored 179 points.
To put that in perspective, Carter scored 102 from 13 on debut while fellow All Black Andrew Mehrtens contributed 94 from seven in his maiden season.
While Blackadder’s coaching career later took him to England for two seasons in the west country with Bath, before bringing him to Tokyo, Mo’unga remained a mainstay for the Crusaders, and more recently the All Blacks, for whom he has now played 44 tests, two of which were in Japan against the Brave Blossoms.
His decision, and that of fellow All Black Shannon Frizell, to reunite with his former coach is massive recognition for Brave Lupus, and for Japan Rugby League One, further reinforcing the competition’s credentials as a favoured destination for leading players.
Sunday, January 8:
HANAZONO KINTETSU LINERS v KUBOTA SPEARS FUNABASHI TOKYO-BAY
Hanazono Rugby Stadium, Osaka, 12.00 (JT)
Stepping up from the second division was always going to be a hard ask for the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners, but coach Yoshitake Mizuma and his men probably didn’t appreciate quite how frustrating it might get until now.
Denied a draw on the opening weekend by a missed conversion, Kintetsu trailed Kobe by just five shortly after half-time, only to get swamped in a try deluge as the Steelers posted five to run away with the game.
The task will be no easier for the second division champions when they welcome last season’s first division semi-finalists Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo-Bay, with the Spears looking to move on from frustrations of their own after missed goalkicking opportunities cost them two weeks ago in the draw at Yokohama.
Wallaby Will Genia and the Australian-born 26-cap Scottish second row Ben Turis should front for Kintetsu while Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx, Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley and All Black midfielder Ryan Crotty will be part of the Spears’ match day squad.
After seven tries from five matches last term, Marx has gone try-less in his first two outings of the new season.
Instead, Kubota’s star has been winger Haruto Kida, whose three tries from the opening two weekends is already one more than he managed from five appearances last term.
Kida’s tally represents half the number of tries the Spears have scored so far.
NEC GREEN ROCKETS TOKATSU v KOBELCO KOBE STEELERS
Kashiwanoha Park Stadium, Chiba, 14.30 (JT)
After the confidence gained from an opening day win over Kintetsu was dented by a sizeable loss at Suntory, it is a big weekend for Michael Cheika’s NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu.
Kobe are the competition’s leading try-scorers with 12, nine of which came last round against Kintetsu, where All Black midfielder Ngane Laumape and halfback Daiki Nakajima helped themselves to hattricks.
While the Green Rockets rank fourth for tries themselves (three behind Kobe), it is their defence that must be addressed, having let in 13 across the 160 minutes played so far.
The coaching staff are sure to have focused on that after Suntory scored eight, putting the pressure on senior players such as former Wallaby halfback Nick Phipps, former Welsh lock Jake Ball, and ex-Maori All Blacks Ash Dixon and Whetukamokamo Douglas to lead the way.
The Green Rockets will want more from Taqele Naiyavaroro, who’s been limited to two 15-minute cameos so far.
As one of the team’s three foreign test picks, the former Wallaby winger needs to make more of an impact as the season progresses.
Laumape has quickly made his mark at Kobe, as has the 21-year-old flyhalf Seungsin Li, who has stepped out of the shadow of the experienced New Zealanders, All Black Aaron Cruden and Super Rugby veteran Hayden Parker, to make the number 10 jersey his own.
The new Japanese international, who is of Korean descent, has scored 82 points in his last five appearances for the club (28 this season), justifying the coaching staff’s decision to allow Cruden to leave for Suntory, giving Li the keys to drive the backline.
If Li’s is a name for the future, the most remarkable story amongst Kobe’s current crop is that of Ataata Moeakiola, who scored a hat-trick against the Green Rockets last term playing on the wing and was also a try-scorer for the Steelers last week, only this time he was playing back-row.
A former Super Rugby player with the Chiefs in New Zealand, Moeakiola is a modern-day Jonah Lomu in reverse: the All Black legend began life in the backrow as a schoolboy, before being converted to wing.
Moeakiola was wing at the Chiefs and made nine of his 12 appearances for Kobe last term in that position, as well as one at inside centre, but he has played his last four for the club as a backrower, including both matches this term.
TOYOTA VERBLITZ v RICOH BLACK RAMS TOKYO
Toyotasu Stadium, Aichi, 14.30 (JT)
After a 25-minute introduction to Japan Rugby League One against the Dynaboars, 70-cap England international Joe Launchbury will be aiming to step up his involvement as Toyota Verblitz looks to get back on track after the surprise loss to Sagamahira in the last round.
The concession of a penalty try three minutes from time cost Verblitz after they had at one stage led by 12 points, with the loss dropping Toyota to eighth on the table.
With Saitama, Brave Lupus, Kobe, and Kubota to follow over the next four weeks, Verblitz can’t afford another stumble, especially given they lost to three of those sides last term and didn’t play Kobe due to Covid.
Ricoh posed no such problems last season, Verblitz running in 10 tries while cantering to a 64-17 win. Despite strengthening during the offseason, most notably with the acquisition of former England backrower Nathan Hughes and former Wales midfielder Hadleigh Parkes, the Black Rams have had a tough start to the new campaign after successive defeats.
An inability to convert field pressure into points has been the major problem while the concession of 25 penalties, as well as the yellow card shown to Hughes at a critical time last week, has stifled momentum With Verblitz flyhalf Tiaan Falcon the league’s fourth top point-scorer with 24 from the opening two matches, discipline will be important if the Black Rams are to secure their first competition points of the season.
With the unbeaten NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes off duty, the remaining four sides have the chance to sort out who will be the biggest threat to the leader, as their campaigns resume.
Second meet third as the Kyushudenryoku Kyuden Voltex host the Chugoku Electric Power Red Regulions. Both sides lost to the Red Hurricanes, but won their other outing, although home advantage and the fact that their four-point loss to NTT Docomo compares favourably to the 24-point defeat to the same opponent suffered by the Red Regulions, suggest the Voltex will start firm favourites at Fukuoka.
The other match sees Wycliff Palu’s Kurita Water Gush Akishima host the Mazda Skyactives Hiroshima with both sides having lost their opening match of the competition.
Saturday, January 7:
KYUSHUDENRYOKU KYUDEN VOLTEX v CHUGOKU ELECTRIC POWER RED REGULIONS at Fukuoka, 15.00 (JT)
Sunday, January 8:
KURITA WATER GUSH AKISHIMA v MAZDA SKYACTIVES HIROSHIMA at Tokyo, 14.30 (JT)