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Blueprints of four rugby masterminds on show in mouth-watering League One clashes

By Sam Smith
Wayne Smith. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Four of the modern game’s greatest coaches will match wills this weekend as Japan Rugby League One brings together Eddie Jones, Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen, and Robbie Deans.

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Jones and Smith are advisors at Tokyo Suntoy Sungoliath and Kobelco Kobe Steelers respectively, and the pair are on opposite sides on Saturday as their teams square off in Kobe in what promises to be one of the games of the round. Sharing fourth place on the ladder, both have recovered from first round losses, and will be looking to maintain the momentum against a potential semi-final rival.

The Jones v Smith ‘trilogy’ dates to their time coaching the Wallabies and All Blacks in 2001, with the pair having crossed paths wearing a number of different ‘hats’ in the time since.

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A similar dynamic is at play on Sunday when Deans takes on his one-time Super Rugby assistant Hansen, in a match that is shaping as an important moment in the season for Toyota Verblitz, after two losses from the first three matches.

After coaching together at the Crusaders, the pair went their separate ways, with five-time Super Rugby title-winner Deans later coaching against Hansen while in charge of the Wallabies, before the rivalry resumed in Japan. Rugby World Cup-winning coach in 2015, Hansen held the upper hand against Deans while coaching the All Blacks but is still to find the keys to success in Japan, where his long-time rival has won five titles with the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights.

Mitsubish Heavy Industries Sagamihira Dynaboars v Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo

After last weekend’s thumping at Saitama, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihira Dynaboars will be hoping to reassert themselves as they travel to Chichibu to face Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo. As well as the potential damage to confidence, Sagamahira’s first loss of the campaign also had ramifications on the point’s table, dropping it from first to sixth. The Dynaboars are level with three other sides on points, but behind each on point’s difference, due to the 35- point margin of their defeat at Kumagaya.

One of the beneficiaries of that outcome was Brave Lupus, whose second win of the season, against the Blue Revs, has ensured it keeps pace with the competition front-runners.

Last year’s semi-finalists have benefitted from the vintage form of the Brave Blossoms legend Michael Leitch, while the firebrand second-rower Warner Dearns is also marking a mark after his breakthrough international season with Japan.

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Todd Blackadder’s side showed during its narrow loss to the Wild Knights on the opening weekend that it is now well and truly in the mix amongst the threats to Saitama’s ambition for a three-peat of titles. With Brave Lupus about to enter a difficult five-game stretch that includes Verblitz, Sungoliath, the Eagles and the Spears, beating the Dynaboars is a non-negotiable as far as the season’s overall aspirations are concerned.

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Hanazono Kintetsu Liners v Yokohama Canon Eagles

After last weekend’s disappointing performance, the last thing captain Will Genia and his Kintetsu Liners probably need is the visit of a similarly disappointed opponent, who will be seeking to bounce back after letting a game slip that should have been won.

Yokohama Canon Eagles coach Keisuke Sawake is probably still trying to work out just how his side could play 60 minutes against 14-men and not come away with the win at Suntory in a performance that – while disappointing – might serve the Eagles well in the longer-term, by acting as a reference point for the type of mistakes that can lose games against the better teams in the league.

While the Liners don’t rate in that company, last season’s second division champions are still a lot better than they showed during last weekend’s 63-point drubbing and will be looking to prove it in front of the Osaka fans. With Sungoliath and Brave Lupus up next, it will be important the home side gets back to the level that took it within a missed conversion of a draw with the Green Rockets on the opening weekend.

Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo-Bay v NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu

Second on the ladder, just two points behind Saitama, Frans Ludeke’s Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo-Bay will be looking to keep the pressure on the leaders when they host the NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu.

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Although they haven’t won since the opening round, the Green Rockets produced enough during last weekend’s 10-point loss to Kobe to suggest they are on the right track and will cause their share of problems for teams further up the table.

Their Australian boss, Michael Cheika, will be demanding a better start from his men, after NEC virtually handed the Steelers the game in the first 10 minutes when they conceded a yellow card, and three tries, to trail 19-0. Conversely, Kubota led Kintetsu 14-0 after the same period, and didn’t stop scoring, eventually posting 11 tries against an opponent the Green Rockets had earlier beaten by two points.

Perhaps fortunately for NEC, Ludeke has chosen to rest Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx, who scored three tries in the first half last week, and three during Kubota’s 59-26 win over the Green Rockets last term. Ludeke has instead handed a debut to another South African, the former Bulls rake Schalk Erasmus, while All Black Ryan Crotty starts for this first time in the campaign. Wallaby Bernard Foley drops to the bench.

While the absence of Marx may be a relief for NEC, the promotion from the Kubota bench of Kazuhiro Taniguchi most definitely is not. The halfback scored five tries against the Green Rockets during a remarkable afternoon at Kashiwa last season, where tackling was ‘optional’ and 16 tries were posted in a crazy game which the Spears won 71-41.

With Kubota having surpassed 70 again against Kintetsu, and NEC having topped the 30-point mark in two of its three matches to date, another big scoring afternoon could be on the cards, between two sides who will have to tighten their defence if they are to achieve their ambitions for the season.

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Kobelco Kobe Steelers v Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath

Just how good are the Kobelco Kobe Steelers?

After an underwhelming start to the Japan Rugby League One era, where they won just seven of 16 and finished seventh, the 2018 champions have made a promising start this time with back-to-back wins over Kintetsu and NEC after a narrow loss to Canon on the opening weekend. The Steelers brains trust won’t be fooled and will know a bigger test awaits against last year’s finalists, who share the same position on the point’s table with two wins and a bonus point from the first three outings.

Sungoliath won the corresponding match last season 56-17 but a lot has changed since, with All Black flyhalf Aaron Cruden having switched sides, although he won’t feature after being red carded against Yokohama for dangerous play. His absence robs his one-time apprentice, Seungsin Lee, of the chance to test himself against his former training partner. Lee will match up against the well-performed utility back Keisuke Moriya instead.

Injury also robs the game of what would have been a physical head-to-head between All Black midfielder Ngane Laumape and his side-lined Wallaby counterpart Samu Kerevi, but there will still be a potentially brutal confrontation in the backrow between the Japan star Tevita Tatafu, and Kobe’s wrecking ball Ataata Moeakiola. Both have been in dominating form with Moeakiola – now a fulltime backrower after having converted from wing – having already scored three tries, just two behind the competition’s top try-scorer, Suntory winger Seiya Ozaki. Ozaki’s is one ahead of Kobe scrumhalf Daiki Nakajima (four) at the head of the individual try-scoring standings after the first three weekends of competition.

Shizuoka Blue Revs v Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo

Will it be fourth time lucky for the Shizuoka Blue Revs?

Beaten as much by a questionable on-field penalty decision of their own making, as by the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, when last on their home field, the Blue Revs will be desperate to provide their Shizuoka support base – as well as themselves – with a win, to give their season lift off.

With two losing bonus points to show for their efforts thus far, its’ not that Shizuoka isn’t creating chances, making the most of them has been the problem, and it’s a defect they must correct before the leading sides disappear over the horizon on the championship ladder.

In the black corner, they face a Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo outfit fresh off arguably the upset of the season to date, and certain to arrive at Shizuoka confident, after having taken out Toyota in Aichi to register their maiden win. Creating but not completing had been their major issue too, but so too has ill-discipline, and the latter nearly denied the Black Rams last weekend, giving up 18 points to Verblitz courtesy of successful penalty kicks.

With a capable opponent in front of them who will be getting frustrated, Ricoh coach Peter Hewat is sure to be continuing to hammer home the point to his troops about the need to stop giving up cheap points. He may also be looking for a longer contribution from former England international Nathan Hughes, who only played 25 minutes off the bench at Toyota, after having started each of the side’s previous matches.

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Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights v Toyota Verblitz

Toyota Verblitz are not where they want to be.

It’s bad enough that they are coming off an upset loss at home to Ricoh, which has left them one and two for the season, and languishing in eighth on the ladder, but their next assignment is the biggest in the league, facing last year’s champions in their own backyard.

Not only have the Wild Knights not dropped a game since they made Saitama their permanent home three years ago; last weekend they stepped up the gears to outclass the previously unbeaten Dynaboars, producing a performance of greater accuracy, highlighted by a much-improved set-piece.

The set-piece, and overall battle at the breakdown, are sure to be areas Toyota’s Director of Rugby will be targeting, especially given the aces in the former All Black coaches’ pack; the star loose forwards Pieter-Steph du Toit (South Africa) and Kazuki Himeno (Japan).

Last weekend’s loss has meant Verblitz are once again running the risk of falling behind the competition leaders, creating a gap they will be unable to bridge later. Verblitz lost two of its first four during last year’s Covid interrupted season, and such was the damage, they were unable to make up the ground, despite the benefit of three ‘free’ wins by Covid-enforced defaults.

Ominously, the Wild Knights are not an opponent Verblitz has enjoyed facing in recent seasons, being bettered three times by Saitama during their current 35-game unbeaten run, with the average gap 24 points.

While Lood de Jager got his Japan Rugby League One career underway last weekend, after the second row returned from Test duty injured, the Springbok may be missing his international colleague Damien de Allende, after the inside centre received a red card during the win over Sagamihira for a dangerous cleanout at a ruck. Former New Zealand Super Rugby player Vince Aso is his replacement.

– Japan Rugby

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