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All Blacks to face off against NZ Super Rugby teams in Japan

By RugbyPass
Aaron Smith of the Highlanders looks on ahead of the round 11 Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on May 05, 2023, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The return of Japan Rugby League One after the New Year’s break sees the competition’s four participants in next month’s Cross-Border matches against the New Zealand Super Rugby sides step up their preparations with challenging assignments.

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Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath will face the (Auckland) Blues in the Japanese capital on the first weekend of Cross-Border on February 3, while Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights welcome last year’s Super Rugby runners-up, Gallagher (Waikato) Chiefs, to their Kumagaya fortress on the same afternoon. Japan Rugby League One champions Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay are in action the following weekend, tackling the Chiefs, while Yokohama Canon Eagles will test their strength against the Blues, who made last year’s Super Rugby semi-final.

The Wild Knights, who have lost just once at Kumagaya since 2019, continue their build up on Saturday with a tricky test against a rejuvenated Toyota Verblitz. Although on the wrong end of a narrow loss to Yokohama on Match Day Two, Verblitz have shown that with the addition of the All Black duo of flyhalf Beauden Barrett and halfback Aaron Smith, they can be a title threat, after finishing a disappointing sixth last term.

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The Wild Knights have taken maximum points from their three outings to start the season, which includes a thumping win over Yokohama on the opening weekend. While Wallaby star Marika Koroibete has been named on the bench, the Wild Knights still have Rugby World Cup-winning Springbok centre Damien de Allende in their starting XV, alongside 10 members of Japan’s squad from that tournament in their match day 23.

Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath have a similarly difficult assignment against another of the big improvers from last term, Kobelco Kobe Steelers, who will be looking to get back on track after suffering their first defeat of the season against Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo on Christmas Eve. Scoring points aren’t a problem for Dave Rennie’s men at the moment; even though they were defeated, Kobe scored 39 last time, and they are currently the competition’s leading point-scorers with 149.

The match brings New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup skipper Sam Cane, who starts on the back of the scrum for Suntory, up against his former Chiefs mentor Rennie, as well as recent All Black teammates Brodie Retallick and Ardie Savea. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers’ razor blade fares against a Suntory side boasting the league’s second meanest defense, and who are aided by Rennie’s Wallabies successor Eddie Jones, who is a club advisor.

<a href=
All Blacks Ardie Savea” width=”4476″ height=”2984″ /> Kobelco Kobe Steelers’ Ardie Savea (R) scores a try during the NTT Japan Rugby League One match between Kobelco Kobe Steelers and Honda Heat at Noevir Stadium Kobe on December 09, 2023 in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan. (Photo by Paul Miller/Getty Images)
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Saturday afternoon’s third match in Division One sees Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo and Hanazono Kintetsu Liners chase their first win when they collide in Tokyo. Former England backrower Nathan Hughes, who was a try-scorer in each of the first two games of the season, has been reinstated in the starting XV this week, after coming off the bench in round three, boosting a Ricoh pack that already includes star Brave Blossoms forward Amato Fakatava.
While the Black Rams were stoic in narrow defeats against Verblitz and Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars, they gave up any chance of testing the Wild Knights after a flat first half, which left them astern by 22 points at the break. Kintetsu have shown similar qualities in each of their last two outings: one good half, one bad. In their case, it was each of the first halves against the competition heavyweights, Saitama, and Yokohama, that were promising.

The miserable collapses in the second periods were not so flash, but they have been boosted by the presence of Wallaby star Quade Cooper, who plays after missing the first three games of the season. The 35-year-old’s return from a long-term Achilles injury last season made an immediate impact by helping Kintetsu, who had won just one regular season match, convincingly beat Division Two champions Urayasu D-Rocks over two legs in the Replacement Battle. Having already stated his availability for international rugby later this year on social media, the 84-test veteran will be looking to make a statement first up.

It has not been the start to a title defense that Frans Ludeke and his Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay wanted. The surprise reverse against Shizuoka Blue Revs on Christmas Eve, which followed an opening day loss to Suntory, means the side has already dropped more matches than it did in the entirety of last season’s historic campaign. Things get no easier for the South African coach on Sunday as his men continue their preparations for Cross-Border by facing near neighbors, Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, who are flying after opening the competition with three impressive wins.

Todd Blackadder’s men have already swept aside one local rival after defeating Sungoliath in the Fuchu derby, and they also boast the competition’s two leading try-scorers in Brave Blossoms winger Jone Naikabula and an unlikely source in All Black loose forward Shannon Frizell, each with five.

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Ludeke was able to unwrap his new recruits, Wales fullback Liam Williams and New Zealand hooker Dane Coles, the day before Christmas, and he will be hoping for an increased impact from the test pair now they have had the experience against the Blue Revs to familiarize themselves with the club game in Japan. Both men have more than handy records as try-scorers in club and international play. Yokohama, who also have Cross Border on the radar, visit Sagamihara.

All Blacks Japan
New Zealand All Black veteran Dane Coles (L) and new teammate Welsh full-back Liam Williams (R) pose together after a press conference and introduction to the media at the offices of their new club Japanese champions Kubota Spears, in Funabashi, Chiba prefecture, in the suburbs east of Tokyo on December 4, 2023. Coles said on December 4 that he felt “young and energised” after coming out of retirement to answer an emergency call from the Japanese club. (Photo by Richard A. Brooks / AFP) (Photo by RICHARD A. BROOKS/AFP via Getty Images)

After a surprisingly limp performance on opening day against Saitama, last year’s third-placed getters have bounced back strongly, following up a tense win over Verblitz with an effortless second half stroll against Kintetsu. With the Springbok Rugby World Cup-winners, centre Jesse Kriel and halfback Faf de Klerk, having hit the ground running since their return from France, the Eagles have made a promising start in their bid to make it back-to-back semi-final appearances.

Despite suffering their first defeat of the campaign last time out, the Dynaboars still highlighted their scoring capability by running up 40 points against Verblitz. Having faltered after an almost identical start to the last campaign, when they won their first two, Sagamihara will see Yokohama as a chance to change that storyline as the season gets deeper. One man the Eagles will need to contain is the ex-Wallaby centre Curtis Rona, who has scored in each of the opening three matches, and heads into this weekend with four tries to his name.

Just stopping tries will help the bottom side Mie Honda Heat, with their defense having leaked 189 points over the first three weekends. With Shizuoka coming off a deserved upset win over Kubota, another difficult afternoon could be in store for last season’s promoted side as they continue their struggle to adapt to the higher grade.

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