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Kriel faces De Allende in crunch Japan clash

PREVIEW: Saturday’s match between fourth-placed Eagles and unbeaten top-of-the-table Saitama Knights is notable for the various approaches the combatants adopt, as it will for the outcome.


Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans, who has been a master of knockout rugby through his title-laden career with the Crusaders and his current charges, has shown his hand by naming a first-choice XV, looking to continue a dominance that his seen his side win 14 straight against the Eagles, including last year’s semifinal where Yokohama collapsed dramatically in the second half to lose 51-20 after they had led 17-15 at halftime.

Saitama followed up that success on the opening day of the current season when they put another half-century on the Eagles, kicking off their unbeaten campaign with a 53-12 victory.

The win was the first of 15 to date, which leaves the Wild Knights 80 minutes away from their third unbeaten regular season from four since the game resumed in Japan after Covid.

Putting the size of the task awaiting the Eagles in a historical context, Saturday’s 33-24 win over Kintetsu Liners was Saitama’s 86th from the team’s last 89 matches, with a further match drawn.

This includes 48 wins from their last 48 away regular season fixtures.

Although the Eagles have achieved back-to-back semifinals after a long absence from the knockouts, this year’s campaign has not been without its bumps, including last weekend when Verblitz scored an 84th-minute try to prize away a game Yokohama had looked odds on to win for much of the contest.


It was their fifth loss; one more than in the regular season last term, with the competition favourites still to play in the sixteenth round.

While the performance of rookie flyhalf Yuragi Muto in just his second league appearance, as well as further exposure for recently returned Springbok Jesse Kriel, were positives to take out of the visit to Aichi, coach Keisuke Sawake cut a frustrated figure at full-time, having watched his charges let the match slip through their fingers.

For all the Eagles’ improvement during his four seasons at the helm, it was a picture that the title-winning coach had seen a few too many times; most notably last term in their regular season tie with the Wild Knights.

Defeat at Toyota ended a run of four consecutive wins by the Eagles, their best sequence of the season.


Although a sixth defeat for the year, mathematically at least, it will make no difference to the outcome of their season. Sawake will know that the afternoon is effectively a ‘free hit’ for his side.

Outgoing champions Kubota Spears will be looking to bow out on a high while sending Sungoliath to the semifinals on the back of three winless weekends when the two clash in a match that is anything but a ‘dead’ rubber to those involved.

The Spears won’t defend their title after a difficult campaign, which started with a loss to Sungoliath on the opening weekend.

But they beat Suntory three times last term – including in the playoffs – and will know that a fourth win in five games would be a huge psychological blow for their semi-final-bound rivals.

Prior to last year, Kubota had never beaten Suntory in league play, going back to the introduction of Top League in 2003, another victory will rate highly, regardless of the circumstances in which it is achieved.

Suntory’s semifinal opponents, Brave Lupus, should have Richie Mo’unga back on deck for Sunday’s visit to Shizuoka.

Toshiba faces an opponent who will have found last week’s 44-point demolition by Steelers demoralising.

Having gone unbeaten in five, the Blue Revs might have been entertaining a late run for fifth.

Instead, eighth, the same as last year, is now their lot, which is disappointing given they showed enough potential to have expectations of much more.

A fifty percent record at home – three wins, three losses and a draw – has been costly, with the close losses to Kobe (four points) and Suntory (four points), along with the 31-31 draw with Kubota, being the difference between the bottom half of the table and a genuine semifinal challenge.

Confirming fifth, while extending a record that has seen them win their last 11 against Honda, will be the main agenda for Kobe as they open the weekend at Suzuka.

Ardie Savea’s league one sabbatical has ended early – he will not feature in Kobe’s final outing – but his contribution to a fifth-place finish still represents a decent contribution at a club where he quickly became a fan favourite.

Having finished ninth last term, Kobe will have climbed four places if they beat Honda.
If nothing else, the season has provided Dave Rennie with a good base of knowledge, of his team and players, as well as the league, before the ex-Wallaby coach returns for his second season.

Toyota need to beat the Black Rams and hope Kobe have stumbled if they are to better last year’s sixth.

A changing of the guard at Aichi will see Verblitz swapping All Black personnel next term, with last year’s World Cup coach Ian Foster joining, while two-time World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett leaves.

Although the latter couldn’t achieve the same heights he did with Sungoliath in the final Top League, when Suntory made the final, his match-winning play in the 84th minute of last week’s win over Yokohama showed Barrett still has plenty in his bag of tricks that the Brave Blossoms will have to be wary of when the All Blacks visit later in the year.

The Dynaboars will be chasing a sixth win of the campaign at Kintetsu Liners, and while success in Osaka cannot change their ninth ranking, it would better by two the number of victories achieved on their return to Division One last year.


Division One
Saturday, May 4
Mie Honda Heat v Kobelco Kobe Steelers
Yokohama Canon Eagles v Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights
Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath v Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay

Sunday, May 5
Hanazono Kintetsu Liners v Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars
Shizuoka Blue Revs v Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo
Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo v Toyota Verlitz; at Tokyo

Division Two
Sunday, May 5
Red Hurricanes Osaka v Kyushu Electric Power Kyuden Voltex

Monday, May 6
Urayasu D-Rocks v NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu

Division Three
Saturday, May 4
Kurita Water Gush Akishima v Mazda SkyActivs Hiroshima

Sunday, May 5
Hino Red Dolphins v Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks

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