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Savea's Steelers looking for riposte

PREVIEW ROUND 11: Fresh off their 10th loss in a row, and from a match they were expected to win against Mie Heat, the last thing Hanazono Liners probably needed was the Kansai derby, which is traditionally the biggest game of their regular season.

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Whether it turns out to be a rallying point for the rest of their season or not, the derby is their next assignment, as Kobe Steelers roll out the welcome mat for their neighbours on Sunday, looking for an immediate riposte after last week’s loss to the Wild Knights.

Dave Rennie’s men fired a few shots at the unbeaten league leaders, and the 28-18 defeat has certainly not dimmed their status as a genuine title contender, but the former Wallaby coach will be expecting a response from his side against an opponent his players know will be supercharged as they try and repeat last year’s derby upset.

Kintetsu’s dramatic 34-33 win, clinched with a converted try in the final play of the game, was even more memorable for it being the side’s only win of the regular season, at their 15th attempt, while also snapping a seven-match losing streak in the battle for Kansai superiority.

Ominously for the underdogs, the Kobe they face is a vastly different beast from that they bettered last term. Rennie’s arrival has changed the game.

So too, has the presence of Ardie Savea, who has wowed crowds in Japan with his combination of pace, skill, and strength, and whose importance to his country was illustrated last week when new All Black coach Scott Robertson pitched up at Kumagaya to check on his star’s progress.

Kolbe returns after missing the last three matches, but such is the level of belief within the group, Sungoliath still overcame several obstacles to break Verblitz hearts during a dramatic contest.

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They continue to fly under the radar, although performances like last week indicate the size of the task the Eagles are going to have at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.

Black Rams Tokyo face a similarly tall order against their cross-town rivals, Brave Lupus Tokyo, but they were troublesome for Todd Blackadder’s inform side last term, missing a long-range penalty attempt two minutes from fulltime in their 10-12 loss in March, after having asked plenty of questions during a 7-17 defeat on Christmas Eve.

It’s now or never for Kubota

Friday night brings together the two teams that fought out last year’s grand final but in circumstances that are very different, with the defending champion Spears battling to keep their season afloat, while the Wild Knights have been largely untested in putting together 10-straight wins.

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Kubota’s cause hasn’t been helped by injuries, with last year’s leading point-scorer, Bernard Foley, sidelined since round three, try-scoring wonder wing Haruto Kida also out of action, while Liam Williams and Dane Coles have missed the last two weeks.

Coles returns against the Wild Knights.

The Spears’ nail-biting 17-15 victory in last year’s decider snapped an incredible 14-game losing sequence in this rivalry that dated back to 2006 and included three semifinals as well as the corresponding regular season match last term, which the Wild Knights won 30-15 after having trailed at halftime.

Of more immediate concern for coach Frans Ludeke is a sequence which has seen his side lose all four of the matches they have hosted this season.

By contrast, the Wild Knights have won their last 19 away games with an average winning margin of 25 points.

Mie Heat start with what they will see as a winnable fixture on Sunday against Sagamihara Dynaboars.

Heat have won seven of their last eight against the Dynaboars and retain many of the same playing staff as those who fronted for the last two, although both games were tight as Heat got home by one and two points respectively.

After impressive back-to-back wins over the Blue Revs and the Spears, the last two weekends have not gone so well for Glen Delaney’s side.

Heavy defeats by Kobe and Brave Lupus have revived memories of last term where, after at one stage having topped the league, the Dynaboars lost their last six to tumble into the Replacement Battle.

Division One
Friday, March 22
Kubota Spears v Wild Knights; at Tokyo

Saturday, March 23
Blue Revs v Verblitz; at Shizuoka
Sungoliath v Eagles; at Tokyo

Sunday, March 24
Brave Lupus Tokyo v Black Rams Tokyo; at Tokyo
Mie Heat v Sagamihara Dynaboars; at Suzuka
Kobelco Steelers v Kintetsu Liners; at Hygo

Division Two
Saturday, March 23
Kyuden Voltex v Urayasu D-Rocks; at Saga

Sunday, March 24
Seawaves v Red Hurricanes Osaka; at Iwate
Green Rockets Tokatsu v Aichi; at Chiba

Division Three
Saturday, March 23
SkyActivs Hiroshima v Kurita Akishima; at Hiroshima

Sunday, March 24
Red Dolphins v Koto Blue Sharks; at Gunma

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