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Boks versus All Blacks in SANZAAR heavy Japan sub-plot

By RugbyPass
Aaron Smith (L) , Beauden Barrett (C) , Charlie Lawrence of Toyota Verblitz talks to during the NTT Japan Rugby League One match between Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Toyota Verblitz at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium on January 06, 2024 in Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

First versus fourth. Wallaby coach versus Wallaby coach. All Black versus Springbok. There are plenty of subplots in Saturday’s clash between the league-leading Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Kobelco Kobe Steelers in round 10 of Japan Rugby League One, with the game shaping as the litmus test for the title-credentials of Dave Rennie’s improving side.

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Kobe has not been champions of Japan since the old Top League league – the forerunner of the current competition – which the Steelers won in 2018.

While the Kansai-based club sports a different look to that which prevailed six years ago: Wayne Smith is no longer the Director of Rugby, and All Black stars Dan Carter and Andy Ellis aren’t around either; there are several similarities between the two editions.

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Rassie Erasmus on Sam Warburton’s claims that Ireland are the best team in the world

Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus says he didn’t pay too much attention to Sam Warburton’s comments about Ireland being the best team in the World.

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Rassie Erasmus on Sam Warburton’s claims that Ireland are the best team in the world

Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus says he didn’t pay too much attention to Sam Warburton’s comments about Ireland being the best team in the World.

In Rennie, Smith’s former Chiefs’ coaching colleague through two Super Rugby titles, Kobe has a similar personality in charge, with Smith still on the books as an advisor.

On the field, the All Black trio of back row and World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea, second row Brodie Retallick and the imposing midfielder Ngane Laumape now head the cast.

Throw in four Brave Blossoms including Korean-raised backline prospect Seungsin Lee, as well as former Chiefs flyhalf Bryn Gatland, the league’s leading point-scorer, and you have an imposing combination.

They will need to be, as beating Saitama is akin to scaling Mt Fuji, Japan’s highest peak.

Such is the all-round strength and depth of the squad assembled by 2008-13 Wallaby coach Robbie Deans, he routinely fields current internationals on the bench, having provided 11 of the Brave Blossoms squad at last year’s Rugby World Cup.

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He also has the Rugby World Cup-winning nous of midfielder Damien de Allende and inspirational second row Lood de Jager; with the Springbok pair complemented by Wallaby wrecking ball Marika Koroibete.

All three are starting against Kobe.

A serial title-winner, Deans has already matched the five he won with the Crusaders at the Wild Knights.

Despite a narrow defeat in last year’s final, Saitama remain the benchmark, and they are confident, having won nine in a row in the league, on top of last month’s thumping of Super Rugby’s Chiefs.

Last weekend’s 36-24 win over the formerly unbeaten Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo means that the Wild Knights are 13 points ahead of a Kobe outfit holding fourth.

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One point behind Kobe, Yokohama Canon Eagles can inflict further misery on Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay tomorrow night, with the defending champions seventh and in trouble after back-to-back defeats.

They are also without the injured Liam Williams, Bernard Foley, and Dane Coles.

Beauden Barrett’s Toyota Verblitz could move to within a point of the top four if they repeat last year’s victory over Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, while survival is the priority for Shizuoka Blue Revs and Ricoh Black Rams as they meet in Saturday’s other match.

Bottom clubs Hanazono Kintetsu Liners and Mie Honda Heat chase their first win when they play on Sunday, while Richie Mo’unga’s Brave Lupus are aiming for a bounce back, hosting Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars.

Division Two sees a fascinating contest between Urayasu D-Rocks and Toyota Industries Corporation Shuttles Aichi.

Both have lost just once, with D-Rocks awarded the points from the first meeting because they were ahead 10-7 when lightning halted play.

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