Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
New Zealand New Zealand
France France

How a Robbie Deans rivalry is fuelling stellar-cast Japanese final

By Kim Ekin
(Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

Frans Ludeke knows Robbie Deans very well. The two-time title-winning coach from Super Rugby has locked horns with the former Crusaders and current Saitama mentor several times, with their history dating back to the South African’s stints coaching the Johannesburg-based Cats (whom we now know as the Golden Lions), and the Pretoria-based Bulls.


The rivalry then was brief, with the Deans-coached Crusaders beating the Ludeke-prepared Cats 43-15 in 2006 and his Bulls side 54-19 two years later, but it has taken on a more substantive form since Ludeke arrived to take over at Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay in 2016.

While Ludeke has taken his side to three semi-finals since relocating to Japan, alongside Saturday’s maiden appearance in a final, he has rarely got the better of Deans, either in Super Rugby or Top League/Japan Rugby League One and is going to have to do it if his men are to land Kubota’s first title.

Video Spacer

An update on the global club competition | The Breakdown

Video Spacer

An update on the global club competition | The Breakdown

The Spears were defeated four times during Saitama’s 47-game undefeated run, which only ended last month when the defending champions were toppled by an inspired Shizuoka Blue Revs. Although the regular season contest between this year’s finalists saw the Wild Knights home by 15, the Spears had led 12-10 at the mid-point.

They were ultimately undone by a man-of-the-match performance from Saitama’s Brave Blossoms fly-half Takuya Yamasawa, who scored 25 points (including two tries), to bring his side home. That Yamasawa started last weekend’s 51-20 semi-final win on the bench and will do so again for the final, is indicative of the strength within the Saitama squad.

Test colleague Rikiya Matsuda, who missed out on last year’s final, and the subsequent Test season due to injury, wore the Saitama No10 jersey against Yokohama Canon Eagles, and will do so again on Saturday. With Yamasawa watching on, Matsuda put on a show, feasting on the Eagles to the tune of a 24-point haul.

The strength of Saitama’s ‘finishers’ is something Ludeke knows all too well, after having seen his side fall away in the second half of their loss earlier in the season. The ruthless nature of last weekend’s blitz, which saw the Wild Knights run in five tries without reply in a 36-3 second period scoreline, was ominous for their opponents in the final.


So too was the hat-trick scored by Saitama’s star winger Marika Koroibete who, after a relatively quiet regular season, sprang to life in the second half, almost toying with the Yokohama defence. Although not good for Kubota, Wallabies coach Eddie Jones is sure to have been pleased to have seen Koroibete hit full stride with the Rugby World Cup looming on the horizon.

While the muscly Fijian is one of the aces in the Panasonic deck, Ludeke is not without cards of his own to play, with Jones also sure to be watching closely the performance of Kubota backline pivot Bernard Foley. The 33-year-old Australian will finish as the competition’s leading point-scorer, starting the final with 187 to his name from 16 games.

Such is the growing logjam among the Wallabies’ options at fly-half, the final carries huge importance for Foley, not just in guiding his club to a maiden title, but also in potentially stamping his passport on QF (Qantas) 2023 bound for France.

Springbok internationals and Rugby World Cup certainties Malcolm Marx, Damien de Allende and Lood de Jager will also be on show, with de Allende and de Jager both chasing their first silverware in Japan after joining the Wild Knights this season.


Marx, who is in his second season with Kubota, might be the world’s best hooker but astonishingly he has never won a top-tier professional club title, either in Super Rugby with the Lions, or since he took his career to Japan.

The 28-year-old may never get a better chance than on Saturday where the Spears will be relying on his physicality around the field, but also his nose for the try line. Last weekend’s five-pointer against Suntory was the 11th from the 15 games that the South African has played this season.

Freshman winger Haruto Kida, who seems certain to be named rookie of the year at next Monday’s Japan Rugby League One awards, is one of just three players in the league who have scored more tries this season than Marx, and the Spears will need to provide him with the opportunity to add to the 16 he has already scored if they are to thwart the Wild Knights’ coronation.

The 48-cap All Blacks centre Ryan Crotty has been named to start in what will be just his eighth appearance of a campaign dogged by injury, but the 34-year-old’s title-winning experience – having won Super Rugby three times during his 152-game career with the Crusaders – should be a major asset for the Spears, in what promises to be a tight contest.

Saturday’s League One decider between the Wild Knights and the Spears at the National Stadium in Tokyo has a 2:35pm local time kick-off and it is preceded by Friday night’s third-place play-off between Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath and Yokohama Canon Eagles at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium (7pm KO).

Wallabies midfielder Samu Kerevi will take an important step in his preparation for this year’s World Cup when he starts for the first time this season for Suntory. Test coach Jones, who is already a coaching advisor at Sungoliath, will be keeping close tabs on Kerevi, who played the last 20 minutes of the 24-18 loss to Kubota on Sunday.

The two sides are coming off contrasting, but no less emotive, semi-final defeats, with Sungoliath having battled bravely against Kubota despite playing all but five minutes of the contest with just 14 players, while the Eagles soared in the first half of their clash with Saitama before crashing to earth after the break.

While third represents a step back for a Suntory side that has won the title five times, and appeared in each of the last two finals, the placing would be a meritorious finish for Canon, who have climbed up the rankings in the last two campaigns, shaping themselves as genuine title contenders.

Semi-final red cards to Hendrick Tui (Suntory) and Jesse Kriel (Canon) mean both players miss Fruday’s game, with the absence of the Springboks midfielder handing an opportunity to Luteru Laulala – the younger brother of All Blacks Casey and Nepo – to play just his third game of the season.

Even without Kriel, Springbok coach Jacques van Nienaber is sure to be keeping a close eye on proceedings, hoping that his star half-back Faf de Klerk, who has proved a wonderful addition for Canon, comes through his final outing of the campaign unscathed.


Join free



Trending on RugbyPass


As part of a series of planned improvements, we will need you to reset your RugbyPass password from 24/07/24 to continue commenting on articles.

You don’t need to change anything until that time.

Thank you,


Be the first to comment...

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free

Latest Features

Comments on RugbyPass

Wonton 6 hours ago
Why Scott Robertson may need to ease big names aside for All Blacks' flexibility

One game against Fiji is not enough to show that a player is ready to play the likes of South Africa. Spreading the ball wide too much increases the risk of turnovers and we turned the ball over 20 times against Fiji which is a lot more than what we did in the two England tests. We actually turned the ball over the same amount of times (20) against England in the 2019 semi final which we lost. Fiji didn’t make us pay for those turnovers but other teams will. In the 2nd test against England this year we had 100% success rate on attacking rucks. That’s the first time the AB’s have achieved this since the 2019 opening game of the RWC against South Africa. South Africa won last years RWC and Jesse Kriel did not pass once. The days of the Conrad Smith type centre might be over. Also Conrad Smith debuted in 2004 but he did not become an incumbent until Nonu did also in 2008. As for Rieko Ioane he and Jordie Barrett put in some very strong midfield hits in the 2nd test forcing turnovers several times. Rieko Ioane hasn’t played wing in years. If Proctor is moved to 13 then the best I think Ioane can hope for is an impact player off the bench. He does not have the aerial game of Caleb Clarke or the workrate of Tele’a for 11 and going to be selected over Jordan at 14. However its much too early to replace Rieko with Proctor. Rieko was excellent in the knock out rounds of the RWC. All Proctor has to show on his test CV is a good game against Fiji.

23 Go to comments
Nick 7 hours ago
How 'gazelle' Nick Frost thawed the hearts of Wallaby fans at Suncorp

Its almost like you read my comment on the other site on sunday morning Nick - you flagged all the same examples! 😝 Frost was motm for mine. That eg in the 56th minute in particular impressed me, nothing but sheer effort and a dupont/smith-like tracking line behind the D. Surely an effort like that from frost marries perfectly with that quote from schmidt at the start of the year about effort and work rate being 70-80% and talent is just the icing on top… What it also showed though was the players not making that effort, in that example he goes past both valetini and ikitau, and in the eg that finished with valetini scoring hunter paisami barely breaks a canter to support the break. And then there was the chase from wright and lancaster for the 2nd georgian try! One blemish - at kickoff I saw frost miss or get bumped off a few tackles and I felt like I saw what has been holding his selection back. I think because he is so big and is trying to get low to tackle, he seems to dip his head and ends up losing his balance or ability to adjust and ends up missing or making a soft hit. I think in the first 2 minutes he misses or makes 2-3 soft tackles, but you could clearly see the work rate and desire! He (the pod) also missed a kick restart or two? Also very happy to see harry wilson back in the fold. What impressed me from him wasn’t all the usual stuff he is known for, but all the other bits that usually let him down. He looked surprisingly good in the air at lineout time, physical at the breakdown, and good in the maul peeling off 3 georgians for one of the maul tries. Id have frost, skelton, wright as my 4-6 with LSL and wilson on the bench. i’m once again unconvinced by tom wirght - he was very good game 1, but game 2-3 he was back to more rocks than diamonds. There is no real other player to usurp him really so he stays in the team for now but I think Joe should put kellaway wherever he serves the team best and wright can be moved around him. Did donno do enough to overtake noah? My gut says no. They clearly had a plan to attack more so he looked better in that regard because he just had more opportunity, but they looked better off tate (who had a v good game also) then they did off donno.

25 Go to comments
TRENDING What Scott Robertson made of Billy Proctor's All Blacks debut Scott Robertson on Billy Proctor's Test debut