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Bok star Cheslin Kolbe returns in Japan after abscence

By RugbyPass
Cheslin Kolbe of Tokyo Sungoliath enters the pitch prior to the NTT Japan Rugby League One match between Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath v Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo at Ajinomoto Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay broke the longest losing streak in Japanese club rugby when they beat Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights in front of 42,000 people in last season’s Japan Rugby League One decider.

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The Spears’ 17-15 win ended a run of 14 straight defeats which dated back to 2006.

Although mathematically a loss would not rule them out of this year’s title-race, qualification for the semi-finals will become a tall order should they not repeat last season’s success in Friday night’s grand final replay.

While the league-leading Wild Knights have cruised through the opening 10 rounds of the competition unbeaten, inconsistency has plagued the defending champions, who have only once managed to string together back-to-back wins.

Even those were hazardous, with the Spears’ consecutive wins over Kobelco Kobe Steelers and Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo requiring last minute scoring plays, before the third win of that sequence came in a more comfortable manner against the winless Hanazono Kintetsu Liners.

Injuries have undoubtedly played their part, with Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley not sighted since round three, while each of All Black hooker Dane Coles and Wales fullback Liam Williams missed the last two weeks.

Coles returns tomorrow night.

Foley, who was the competition’s leading point-scorer last term, has been arguably the biggest loss, although Tomoki Kishioka has grown in confidence in seven appearances since assuming the pivotal role.

The 26-year-old provided some vital touches as Kubota came back from the dead to beat Yokohama Canon Eagles last weekend; the Spears scoring two tries in the last three minutes to win 29-26, despite having played 50 minutes with 14 men.

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Although barely tested so far, the Wild Knights did have to come from behind to subjugate Kobelco Kobe Steelers in the second half last weekend, with the 28-18 win a perfect lead-up to tomorrow night.

Kobe start the weekend fourth, retaining that position on point’s differentials, and they face a challenge harder than it looks on paper, in Sunday’s Kansai derby against Kintetsu.

Although the only winless side in the league, Quade Cooper’s side held the same status before the corresponding tie last season, which they won with a last-minute try.

Second-placed Toshiba Brave Lupus will be expected to take care of relegation threatened Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo, while Mie Honda Heat will be aiming for consecutive victories when they face Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars in Sunday’s other match.

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Saturday sees Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, boosted by the return after a three-match absence of Springbok star Cheslin Kolbe, host the Eagles, whose prospects of a return to the semi-finals would take a turn for the worse should they suffer a second defeat, in the wake of last week’s traumatic finish.

Steve Hansen’s Toyota Verblitz are in similar territory, having to overcome the scars of their dramatic loss to Sungoliath, against Shizuoka Blue Revs in a game they dare not lose.

Already five points from the semi-final places, defeat would leave Verblitz in a tenuous position with five matches to play.

This is not what was expected when the season kicked off from a side featuring All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith, along with Springbok Pieter Steph du Toit and Brave Blossoms skipper Kazuki Himeno.

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