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Fireworks expected at international-laden Fuchu derby

Kotaro Matsushima. (Photo by Paul Miller/Getty Images)

All eyes will be on the battle of Fuchu as Japan Rugby League One enters round seven, with Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo and Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath squaring off in a contest that has significant ramifications for the point’s table, but also for the fans, and the storied history of the clubs.

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Semi-final opponents last term when Suntory prevailed, Sungoliath has had the best of the rivalry in recent years, although Toshiba’s 27-3 win in the round robin last year not only ended a losing sequence against its local rivals, but also represented a major reversal in fortune after Suntory had won the previous year’s fixture 73-5 in the final edition of the Top League.

Both sides are in hot form, with Suntory having averaged 45 points per game through a five-game winning run, while Toshiba has run up 123 points during its last two outings.

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Defence usually wins big matches though, and with Sungoliath having conceded just 115 points so far this season, and Brave Lupus 107, the statistics suggest Sunday will be a contest of tight margins.

Round Seven opens on Saturday with a fascinating contest when unbeaten Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay tries to make the most of its fortunate success against Ricoh when it travels to Nagoya to face Toyota Verblitz.

With the home side having just snapped a five-game losing streak in courageous fashion against Kobelco Kobe Steelers, wily Kubota coach Frans Ludeke will be preparing his men for a potential ambush from the team skippered by his South African countryman, Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Having missed a golden opportunity to derail one of the competition leaders at Kubota, Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo will have another go in Yokohama on Saturday when they try to add to Canon’s pain, after the Eagles let slip a winning position against the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights due to a botched restart late in the game.

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Sunday sees the Wild Knights visit an NEC Green Rockets outfit that is struggling for confidence, and seems to have run out of points, with just 19 scored through its’ last 240 minutes of play.

Shizuoka’s first win of the season last weekend should give the Blue Revs plenty of swagger as they visit Will Genia’s battling Hanazono Kintetsu Liners, while the mid-table clash on the same afternoon provides Kobe and the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars an opportunity to end unwelcome streaks.

Kobe has lost its last three, while their hosts have a draw and a loss from their most recent outings.

Yokohama Canon Eagles v Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo

Two teams who suffered agonising defeats last weekend are on the ‘redemption trail’ as Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo head to Kanagawa looking to repeat the upbeat performance that gave them two chances to tip up Kubota in the final moments at Edogawa.

With Yokohama in the third week of a tough four-game run that concludes against Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, the Black Rams will be aiming to bring the same level of resilience and self-belief that would have overturned a deficit against the Spears – that at one stage stood at 24 points – had either one of two late kicks at goal succeeded.

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Although the points table has them a slightly misleading ninth, the Black Rams’ heroism didn’t come by accident after some “honest” discussions following a heavy defeat by Saitama the week before.

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More honesty will be required against an opponent Ricoh hasn’t beaten since rugby returned after Covid, and the Black Rams could be forgiven for feeling disappointed that Yu Tamura, whose absence was so costly for the Eagles in Saitama, will return via the Yokohama bench.

The competition’s leading point-scorer prior to last weekend, the Brave Blossoms’ veteran has kicked at 82 per cent (26 from 33 attempts) so far in Japan Rugby League One, although it’s a goal from the last Top League two years ago that the Black Rams’ faithful remember him for most, after Tamura turned a 28-28 draw into a three-point win for Canon with a penalty goal in the last minute.

Although disappointed to lose to Saitama, a philosophical Yokohama coach Keisuke Sawake acknowledged that – while he was frustrated by the manner of last weekend’s defeat – such experiences are all part of the development process for a side unused to the pressure of playoff rugby.

“A while ago, the team might have been satisfied with the performance [to run the Wild Knights close], but not now,” Sawake told local media after the game.

He will be putting it on his players this week to prove it.

Toyota Verblitz v Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay

Are Verblitz really back?

Last weekend’s gallant performance would say yes, but director of rugby Steve Hansen and stand-in skipper Pieter Steph du Toit know the ill-discipline that nearly cost them their first victory in five, cannot be repeated against second-placed Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay.

The hattrick of yellow cards conceded against Kobe took Toyota’s total for the season to six.

Their 38-24 victory notwithstanding, it’s very hard to consistently win games when you give the opposition a leg up by playing short-staffed.

Kubota will most definitely take any opportunities their opponents provide as was illustrated in their win over the Black Rams, where they were outscored by six tries to four, but converted enough of their field pressure into goals to still win the game.

Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley, who is now the competition’s leading point scorer with 72 after his haul of 20 last week, nailed eight out of nine attempts to see off Ricoh, sending a warning to Toyota that their disciplinary margin for error is slim.

After back-to-back performances that, while resilient, could easily have gone the other way, the Spears will know a more convincing performance is required, especially as a potential top-of-the-table showdown with Saitama is not too far off in the distance (round 10).

In the meantime, national bragging rights are up for grabs, with Malcolm Marx starting at hooker for the visitors while fellow Springboks Steph du Toit and Willie le Roux, who is on the bench, will suit up for the locals.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars v Kobelco Kobe Steelers

The momentum is slowing for the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars.

After a fairy-tale start by claiming wins in three of the first four, the last two rounds have brought some reality with a draw against the then-winless Blue Revs, and a heavy defeat by Sungoliath.

In the top four two weeks ago, Glenn Delaney’s men now find themselves mid-table with work to do to keep up with the competition pacesetters.

If the Dynaboars are reducing speed, Kobelco Kobe Steelers have practically stalled, having lost the last three while without their big summer signing, powerful All Black midfielder Ngane Laumape.

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His absence with a knee problem was keenly felt last weekend, when Kobe at one point faced just 12 Verblitz defenders, and yet could only bend the line and score once, as it tumbled to a 14-point defeat.

A plus was the return to full throttle of last year’s co-leading try-scorer for the competition, winger Rakuhei Yamashita, who announced he was back in business with two tries, but that success couldn’t cover for a lethargic performance, where individual work rates off the ball weren’t good enough.

The good news is Kobe, who are now 10 points off the top four, don’t need to look far for inspiration, having seen how Verblitz snapped a four-game losing streak at their expense.

Head coach Nick Holten didn’t hide from Kobe’s shortcomings addressing Japanese media after the game, saying his side had no excuses.

“Toyota Verblitz was hungrier, especially in the second half.”

The challenge for Kobe this week is to develop a similar level of ‘appetite’!

Toshiba Brave Lupus v Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath

This game has been the staple for followers of rugby in western Tokyo since Suntory Frucor began its investment in rugby in 1980 by creating its own club.

In doing so, the team moved into a neighbourhood that was the domain of Toshiba, who had already been around for 32 years.

Is it any wonder then, that the derby has traditionally been the highlight of the season for both sets of fans, and players, and has been known to throw up the odd boilover?

Having reasserted themselves against Toshiba in last year’s semi-finals and beaten them again in pre-season, Sungoliath enter this contest in a good place.

They were boosted by the return to their attacking best of outside backs Kotaro Matsushima and Tevita Li last weekend, along with the reinstatement from suspension of All Black Aaron Cruden at flyhalf.

The ruthlessness with which Suntory put paid to a previously well-performed Sagamihara side, especially off turnover ball, will not have gone unnoticed by the Toshiba leadership, who appeared to start their physical preparations for this appointment early.

While winning by big margins is not always the best preparation for major tests of strength, Brave Lupus coach Todd Blackadder used part of last weekend’s game to withdraw his senior players from the firing line, allowing the backup cast to get on-field time.

Two of those given early marks who will be in Suntory’s sights are Toshiba’s firebrand second row Warner Dearns – who is rapidly laying claim to being the most invaluable forward in the competition – as well as evergreen former Brave Blossoms’ skipper Michael Leitch, whose vintage form suggests an appearance at a fourth Rugby World Cup is fast becoming a certainty, despite having lost the national captaincy last year.

For all his side’s free-scoring, Blackadder knows the derby is likely to be won (or lost) at the breakdown, which will have been providing much of the defensive focus at Brave Lupus training this week after Kintetsu was able to find passage through this channel too much for the Toshiba coaches’ liking in the last round.

NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu v Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights

Two former Wallaby coaches will go head-to-head as Saitama head coach Robbie Deans (Australia 2008-13) faces Green Rockets Tokatsu Director of Rugby, Michael Cheika (Australia 2014-19).

While Saitama’s 39-10 win over the Green Rockets last year was the first time the pair had crossed paths coaching against each other, they face vastly different challenges on Sunday.

Deans will be looking to maintain the Wild Knights’ focus after the thrilling win over Yokohama, keeping his side’s enthusiasm in check as he sizes up the tough assignments ahead, including Kubota and Suntory.

For Cheika, and his supervising coach Rob Taylor, the task is to raise morale after five defeats, two of which included no second-half points, while last weekend against Shizuoka produced no points at all.

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It is surprising, given they are the only team left with a perfect record, that the Wild Knights are just the sixth-highest try-scorers in the competition for now, with last year’s joint leading try-scorer, centre Dylan Riley, yet to register.

The two-time defending champions have the best defensive record in the league though, as the only side that has yet to concede 100 points, which is an ominous statistic for an opponent with a struggling attack.

Having conceded just 61 penalties, the Wild Knights are also the most disciplined, whereas NEC have the second worst penalty concession rate in the league (88); another statistic that doesn’t bode well for the home side.

With Saitama yet to truly run wild against an opponent this season, will this be the time?

Hanazano Kintetsu Liners v Shizuoka Blues Revs

Things are looking up for the Shizuoka Blue Revs.

After six weeks, they broke through for their first win, and their next task is what appears to be the easiest shinkansen (bullet train) trip of the season; the two-and-a-half-hour journey from Shizuoka to Osaka.

Kwagga Smith’s side were particularly pleased with their defensive work during the 21-0 win over the Green Rockets, with the players’ desire to scramble defensively in keeping with a trend that has them boasting the sixth-best defensive numbers in the league, even though they have just two teams below them on the ladder.

While he was happy to celebrate a first win, Blue Revs coach Horrikawa Takanobu acknowledged his side isn’t as clinical executing attacking opportunities as it needs to be, with ball runners too often becoming isolated after a line-break, which is a deficiency Takanobu has told local media his side would be working hard to rectify.

While Kintetsu’s disappointing defensive record – which has seen the former second division champions conceding tries at an average of nine per outing (56 in six games) – suggests this may be a good opportunity to improve components of its attack, the Blue Revs will need to be careful.

Kintetsu scored 34 against NEC and 36 at Kobe at the start of the season, showing they do have points in them. Their big challenges are a wonky set piece, ill-discipline, and a poor defensive line speed.

Each are now familiar post-match media conference discussion points. Their match outcomes are unlikely to change while this remains so.

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