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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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