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Last chance saloon for Ludeke's Spears in Japan

ROUND 12 PREVIEW: Lose on Sunday against Brave Lupus in Round 12 of the Japan Rugby League Open and the defending champions’ title defence is realistically no more for coach Frans Ludeke’s Kubota Spears.


There would be too much ground to make up, and too little time to do it.

For Lupus, the prize is to virtually end the competition for one of their chief rivals, while also taking the penultimate step towards the playoffs themselves, with two wins from their final five outings likely to be enough for a semifinal appointment.

One of the primary reasons for their success has been the impact of Richie Mo’unga, who sits third on the individual point-scoring charts with 119.

The All Blacks flyhalf arrived in Japan with a reputation built on his enviable record as a crack goal-kicker, but he has created more tries in the league than any other player, with 12 ‘assists’ to go alongside the three he has finished off himself.

On such evidence, if the Spears – who have badly missed their Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley for much of the campaign – cannot limit the former Crusader’s involvement, they are unlikely to be able to inflict the second defeat of the Brave Lupus season.

Sunday is also a pivotal moment for Dave Rennie’s Kobe Steelers.


They play the team ranked immediately above them on the point’s table, Tokyo Sungoliath, whom they have not beaten in their previous four attempts; a run which includes a 44-36 defeat earlier in the campaign.

This occasion has relevance, not just for the finishing order of the top four, but potentially its makeup as well, with the fourth-placed Steelers still to shake off last year’s semifinalists, Yokohama Eagles.

Currently ranked fifth, the Eagles have had a hit-and-miss season, but are just a point behind Kobe and would overtake them if they beat Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo for the fourth time in a row on Saturday, and the former Wallaby coaches’ charges lose the next day.

Last time was a hit for Yokohama, as former international flyhalf Yu Tamura calmly kicked a penalty goal in the third minute of injury time to beat Sungoliath in what could prove to be the defining moment of their season.


Suntory will be eager to get back on the field after squandering a 35-10 lead in that remarkable match, knowing that a win will be a giant step towards semifinal qualification, putting further distance between themselves and the scrap for the final place in the playoffs.

With the form book suggesting the Eagles have an easier run home to each of the two currently ranked above them, a loss this weekend could put an invitation to the playoffs at risk for each of the currently third and fourth-placed sides.

Dynaboars bracing for a new ‘Knightmare’

It’s safe to say the Dynaboars don’t look forward to their dates with Wild Knights.

Their trepidation is understandable: in the three meetings since the Dynaboars gained promotion out of Division Two at the start of last season, Saitama has collected 182 points, which includes an impressive 27 tries from 240 minutes of play.

Ryuji Noguchi, Springbok midfielder Damien de Allende and the Brave Blossoms’ Australian-born Jack Cornelsen have scored tries in each of the games, with De Allende having a curious association with the rivalry: he was also sent off for dangerous contact in the first of Saitama’s three victories!

Scores of 40-5, 61-29 and 81-21 don’t offer much comfort as Sagamihara undertakes the trek to Kumagaya, even though they arrive in heartening form with three wins from the last five, and a respectable record since they let in 12 tries during their chastening 60-point defeat at home to the Wild Knights on January 13.

While qualification for the playoffs has been certain for a long time, the unbeaten Wild Knights will officially get their semifinal passport stamped with a 12th win of the campaign on Saturday.

Verbitz is looking at a 10-point gap to the semifinal positions, but if a successful late run to the last four – although still mathematically possible – seems unlikely now, it will be almost an impossibility should Steve Hansen’s side is upset by winless Hanazono Kintetsu Liners at Gifu.

Kintetsu, who haven’t beaten Verblitz since 2014, aren’t helping themselves.

They are the most penalised team in the league and have lost all 11 matches so far at an average of 27.9 points per defeat.

As Beauden Barrett is suspended after last week’s red card, countryman Tiaan Falcon assumes the No. 10 jersey with the head-to-head in Japan between the All Black flyhalf and his Wallaby counterpart, Kintetsu’s Quade Cooper, now a thing of the past, as Barrett also missed the first game between the two sides.

Aaron Smith starts at scrumhalf for Verblitz, but he won’t be opposed by an international either, with his former Wallaby counterpart Will Genia missing from the Kintetsu line-up.

One place above Toyota thanks to their win in the last round, Blue Revs are similarly unlikely to be a player in the semifinal discussions, but they could make life difficult for some who are, as they face Suntory, Kobe and Toshiba over the last three weekends, not to mention Kubota, who might also be in the also-rans column when they play
on Saturday week.

Before that, Shizuoka face a Mie Heat side they are unbeaten against from the last 12 meetings, but an outfit that seems to be growing in belief on the back of some much-improved performances.

Having shipped 465 points in their opening eight matches (at 58.12 per game), which includes 62 in their first meeting with Shizuoka, Heat has conceded just 74 in the last three (at 24.6 per game), beating Kintetsu alongside competitive performances against the Black Rams (14-24) and the Dynaboars (26-31).

As they are 17 points behind ninth-placed Sagamihara, Heat won’t avoid the end-of-season lottery known as The Replacement Battle, but a continuation of the upward spiral of performances will certainly put Kieran Crowley’s men in better shape psychologically for that series, especially with their inspirational ex-Argentine skipper Pablo Matera on the comeback trail after injury.

The Los Pumas backrower returned from the World Cup ‘damaged’ but he is expected to play a part in the latter stage of the season, as Honda bids to retain Division One status.

Saturday, April 6

Black Rams Tokyo v Eagles; at Tokyo
Blue Revs v Mie Heat; at Shizuoka
Wild Knights v Sagamihara Dynaboars; at Kumagaya
Verlitz v Kintetsu Liners; at Gifu

Sunday, April 7

Kobe Steelers v Tokyo Sungoliath; at Hyogo
Kubota Spears Tokyo Bay v Brave Lupus Tokyo; at Tokyo

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