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Matsuda versus Barrett: Rikiya’s big moment

ROUND 14 PREVIEW: It’s been quite a year for Rikiya Matsuda.

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A 37-cap Brave Blossom, and long-time pilot of the champion Wild Knights, the 29-year-old has had to deal with the arrival in Japan Rugby League One of two major ‘prize fighters’ in the No. 10 jersey this season: the celebrated All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga. Matsuda has more than held his own.

While Mo’unga especially has made a big impact at his club, providing a point of difference that has helped Brave Lupus Tokyo to take the step from gallant nearly men, to genuine title contenders; Matsuda has marched on.

No fuss, no headlines, just consistent performance at the heart of the well-oiled Wild Knights machine, topped off by one of the best boots in the competition, which has reaped him 169 points thus far, just three behind the competition leader, Kobelco Steelers’ Bryn Gatland.

Such has been Matsuda’s consistency, Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans has been happy to use his other highly touted test flyhalf Takuya Yamasawa in a floating role, primarily as a fullback, but also as a game-changing agent when pushed up into the front line.

It’s a formula that works: Matsuda providing the general-ship and control, Yamasawa the brilliance from the back that has helped the Wild Knights dig themselves out of trouble a few times in the past. Not so much this season though, where the six-time champions arrive at round 14 still unbeaten, maintaining an average winning margin of 30.9 points.

This includes wins by 16 points over Barrett’s Verblitz, and 12 against Mo’unga and Brave Lupus, which has left the Wild Knights in excellent shape as they travel to Aichi on Saturday looking to take another step towards their third unbeaten regular season in four years.

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Verblitz, who boast All Blacks Barrett and scrumhalf Aaron Smith, Springbok Pieter Steph du Toit and Brave Blossoms captain Kazuki Himeno, kept their faint hopes of semifinal participation alive last week after achieving their first back-to-back wins of the season against Dynaboars which included 19 points from Barrett.

But much of the off field focus this week has been on the future beyond their current campaign. Toyota announced on Wednesday that former All Black coach Ian Foster will be joining his former ‘boss’ Steve Hansen at the club next year, as will the New Zealand-born Australian rugby league star Joseph Manu.

The latter will not count as one of the three capped foreign players among the allowable quota for clubs, leaving Hansen and Foster free to source another test star for their roster as well, to replace the one-season Barrett.

It seems unlikely the newcomers will be joining a side that made the playoffs, but while Verblitz will need other results to fall their way to make this a possibility, upsetting the Wild Knights on Saturday is a non-negotiable to keep the chance alive.

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An upset win by Dynaboars over Eagles on the same afternoon would also help, both for Verblitz, but more especially the closest side still in range of fourth place, Kobelco Kobe Steelers.

With the Eagles nine points ahead on the competition table, with three to play, wins against the Dynaboars – against whom they have won five of the last six – and Blue Revs next week will do it for Keisuke Sawake’s men, regardless of results elsewhere. The chasing pack will be aware that the Eagles visit the Wild Knights on the last weekend though, so any missteps before then could be gratefully seized on.

Although Blue Revs are among those who still hold a mathematical chance of qualifying, that could have been erased by the time Yokohama play, with their fate resting on a maximum haul against third-placed Sungoliath on Friday night. Among a multitude of scenarios still possible in the semi-final formula, the best the Blue Revs can do – if they achieve three bonus-point wins – is 46 points, a total Yokohama will surpass by beating the Dynaboars.

For Sungoliath, the numbers are much simpler. Repeat January’s performance against the Blue Revs, where Suntory won 29-25, and they will have their passport stamped for the semi-finals, joining the Wild Knights and Brave Lupus in the final four. It’s a prospect they will fancy, having won the last 13 times they have faced Shizuoka, as well as winning five of their last six outings in this season’s league.

The Spoiler Spears

Although last weekend’s head-scratching draw with the Blue Revs didn’t officially deny semifinal entry to Kubota Spears, the locks are being worked on, and the door will probably be shut by the time they run out against Kobe on Sunday, with any points picked up by the Eagles a day earlier knocking Frans Ludeke’s men out of the title chase. In truth, their ‘card’ has probably been marked for a few weeks but with the pressure now off, the outgoing champions could become an even more dangerous beast.

After all, they haven’t been playing badly, denied wins in the last play of the game in each of the last two weeks. They also have a great record against Kobe, having won the last five, which is the longest winning sequence either side has had in their relationship since Top League began in 2003. Which all adds to the pressure on the Steelers, whose season is over should they lose after the Eagles have won the day before.

It was hoped the arrival of former Wallaby coach Dave Rennie, World Rugby Player of the Year and All Black star Ardie Savea and Super Rugby flyhalf Bryn Gatland, along with the return of All Black Brodie Retallick, would provide the impetus for a much-improved showing by the 2018 champions, after last season’s ninth.

This it has done, but with the side failing to nail the big moments when a semi-final berth was on the line, most notably in the last two weeks against Suntory and Toshiba, a finish outside of the top four – should it end that way – is going to be a disappointment, especially given Savea won’t return next year.

Disappointment is also the word to be used summing up the respective campaigns of Black Rams Tokyo and Hanazono Kintetsu Liners, who meet with surviving the Replacement Battle now the season-defining objective.

Although the Black Rams could still avoid the promotion/relegation series, they would need the ninth-placed
Dynaboars to lose their remaining three, which seems unlikely given their most recent performances, which have been competitive against opponents ranked higher on the table.

Ricoh can help themselves, as they face the Dynaboars in the following round, but with Mitsubishi playing Kintetsu on the final weekend of the regular season, Black Rams coach Peter Hewat could be forgiven for already having
one eye on the Division Two grading round which begins on Saturday.

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