Springboks vital as Japan League enters semifinals
JAPAN LEAGUE PREVIEW: A host of Springboks will be in action as the race for the inaugural Japan Rugby League One title hots up this weekend in the semifinals with men like Faf de Klerk, Damien de Allende, Jesse Kriel and Malcolm Marx all playing vital roles for their respective teams.
The acquisition of Springbok halfback Faf de Klerk has taken the Yokohama Canon Eagles to another level in the second edition of Japan Rugby League One.
Just how high the Eagles have soared is set for its ultimate measurement as they test themselves against the defending champion Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights in sudden death on Saturday.
Back in the semi-finals after a long absence, Canon have built on a promising showing in the opening season of the competition last term when they finished sixth, but in the three-time defending champions of Japan, they face a barrier that they have been unable to get beyond in recent history.
While the Wild Knights were stopped three short of 50 consecutive unbeaten games by Shizuoka Blue Revs five weeks ago, the 47 undefeated matches they compiled included six wins against the Eagles; the most Panasonic achieved against any opponent during their remarkable four-and-a-half-year run.
The addition of de Klerk, and the rejuvenation of veteran Brave Blossoms flyhalf Yu Tamura has helped to inspire the new breed at Yokohama, with Springbok centre Jesse Kriel and Wales second row Cory Hill others to shine during the team’s passage to the playoffs.
Such has been the Welshman’s form that he was recently named in Warren Gatland’s preliminary training squad for the Rugby World Cup, and his absence from the semi-final is a big blow for the fourth-placed finishers in the regular season.
Hill’s selection by Gatland reflects the increasing global appreciation of the playing standard in Japan Rugby League One.
That was recognised by New Zealand Rugby this week in its Memorandum of Understanding with Japan Rugby Union, which included a commitment to explore opportunities for competition between Japan Rugby League One and New Zealand Super Rugby clubs.
Tamura, who missed Canon’s last preliminary game due to concussion, ended the regular season as the league’s fourth highest point-scorer (137) but he will need to out-fox fellow Brave Blossoms international Rikiya Matsuda in one of the game’s more enticing match ups.
The Eagles’ Fijian flyer Burua Inoke, who scored 13 tries during qualifying, goes head-to-head with the Wild Knights’ Wallaby superstar Marika Koroibete, while Kriel will be up against a familiar face in midfield, in the form of his Springbok teammate Damien de Allende.
Familiar faces also abound in Sunday’s second semi-final, as Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay resume a rivalry with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath that has already produced an appealing storyline this year.
While Kubota won each of the two previous chapters, Suntory are playoff specialists and can call on the experience of success in their last three semi-finals, alongside the expertise of their long-time advisor, Wallaby coach Eddie Jones, who will undoubtedly have spent plenty of time on zoom cooking up strategies since Sungoliath’s loss to the Spears three weeks ago.
Having finally solved the Suntory riddle this year, after having searched unsuccessfully for answers since professional rugby began in Japan, the Spears will be desperate to complete the hat trick to solve another puzzle;
that being finding their way to a maiden final.
Although the semi-finals will capture much of the attention on the league’s penultimate weekend, the Replacement Battle concludes with the likes of Wallaby stars Quade Cooper, Will Genia and Tom Banks, Wales second rower Jake Ball, Argentine backrower Pablo Matera and Springbok second rower Franco Mostert all still having business to complete before either hanging up the boots for the summer, or starting on the Rugby World Cup trail.
Saturday, May 13
Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights (1) v Yokohama Canon Eagles (4)
Sunday, May 14
Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay (2) v Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath (3)
The fate of the star-studded Urayasu D-Rocks and whether NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu can hold onto their Division One status offers the most compelling viewing as the Replacement Battle concludes.
With Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars almost certainly safe after their 38-point win over Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi last weekend, Hanazono Kintetsu Liners and NEC appear well poised to also retain their Division One status as they head into the return fixtures against D-Rocks and Mie Honda Heat respectively.
Of the pair, it is the Green Rockets who face the most jeopardy, trailing by five after a 34-29 loss to Heat in the opening match of their series at Mie.
Even though the higher-ranked side was defeated, a 24-point comeback in the second half gives the Green Rockets momentum to take into the second leg on home soil.
They also have history on their side, having trounced Honda 33-10 in the corresponding match last term which secured promotion, negating their two-point defeat in the away fixture.
Although they head to Chiba with their noses in front, Heat will have concerns over the fitness of the ex-Argentine captain Pablo Matera, who will start even though he left the field after 16 minutes in the opening tie.
While Honda are flying the flag for the Division Two sides, the runaway section winners Urayasu have a mountain to climb after being ambushed by Kintetsu in the first round.
Having run rampantly through qualifying play, the newly formed club struck its first major hurdle, as the class of Quade Cooper and a determined defensive effort helped the top section’s wooden spooners bring the unbeaten run of the Division Two winners to a shuddering halt.
Cooper only played the first half last week as he began his playing comeback from last year’s Achilles tendon rupture, but such was the Wallaby’s influence on his teammates, the fact that he is likely to play more minutes on Saturday is an ominous sign for a D-Rocks outfit that has a 22-point deficit to make up.
After averaging 49 points per match through their 12 previous outings, Urayasu managed just 14 on Sunday, and will need to find plenty more if they are to gain promotion in their maiden season.
D-Rocks’ coach Johan Ackerman has reacted to that defeat by shaking things up, moving trump card Israel Folau into the front line, starting him at centre after he was largely shackled running from fullback in the first leg.
Saturday, May 13
Hanazono Kintetsu Liners (36) v Urayasu D-Rocks (14)
Nec Green Rockets Tokatsu (29) v Mie Honda Heat (34)
Kurita Water Gush Akishima (25) v Kamaishi Seawaves Rfc (25)
Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex (48) v Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks (0)
Sunday, May 14
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars (59) v Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi (21)