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The wily coach facing one of rugby's toughest tests vs Robbie Deans

Head coach Robbie Deans of Saitama Wild Knights the League One match between Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

If Yokohama Canon Eagles are to stop Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights in Saturday’s first semi-final of Japan Rugby League One at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, they are going to have to do more than just break a 15-game, nine-year, losing streak.

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Success will also require defying the modern-day king of knockout club rugby, Wild Knights boss Robbie Deans.

Perhaps surprisingly under-rated at international level given he lifted Australia’s global ranking from sixth when he arrived – and maintained second for the bulk of his time in the role – before leaving with the side ranked third (a standing the now 10th ranked current generation would kill for), the former Wallaby coach has been a serial winner at club level throughout his distinguished career.

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Deans won two of three semi-finals while guiding Canterbury in New Zealand’s national provincial championship, claiming the title in his maiden season in 1997.

Heading the Crusaders, Deans won seven of his eight semi-finals, going on to win the title, in tournaments that featured the South African sides, five times.

Fixture
Japan Rugby League One
Saitama Wild Knights
20 - 17
Full-time
Yokohama Canon Eagles
All Stats and Data

The only semi-final he lost during nine years in Super Rugby came against the Bulls at Loftus in 2007, at the conclusion of a season where the New Zealand sides were without their All Blacks for much of the campaign due to the controversial national player conditioning programme tried at the time.

His subsequent association with the Wild Knights has seen the side win all eight of the semi-finals it has qualified for, annexing the title on five occasions.

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In total, the 64-year-old has won 15 of the 17 club semi-finals he has prepared, a whopping 88%, and gone on to win the title on 11 occasions (73%).

Such statistics are unprecedented in the professional era, and Deans will be favoured to add another semi-final tick this year, given Saitama has just completed its third unbeaten regular season from the last four, with thumping 53-12 and 43-14 wins over the Eagles among the 16-game collection.

But if it sounds like climbing Japan’s spiritual 3776-metre Mt Fuji might be an easier assignment than beating the Deans-coached side, be sure that the wily Eagles coach Keisuke Sawake will have a plan.

A two-time title-winner with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, where he twice got the better of Deans in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 championship games, Sawake came agonizingly close to breaking Yokohama’s losing sequence against Saitama last year.

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Then, a late try had the Eagles ahead 19-14, only for a botched kick off receipt to turn over the ball, which they never saw again as the Wild Knights calmly worked their way down the field, retaining possession until prop Asaeli Ai Valu crashed over in the 80th minute, which flyhalf Rikiya Matsuda converted to steal a 21-19 win.

Sawake will also be reminding his charges that Saitama’s cloak of invincibility was penetrated by Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay last term, where the title winners recovered from a 30-15 spanking in the regular season to edge the Wild Knights by two in the game that mattered most.

While the steady improvement on Sawake’s watch has seen the Eagles rise from the top eight in the abbreviated post-Covid 2020 season, to sixth in 2021, and back-to-back semi-finals in the first two editions of League One, Yokohama has been a mixed bag this season.

While they have made the playoffs, their record highlights the increasing competitiveness among the leading clubs, which pulled back the number of wins needed.

The Eagles qualified despite losing six times – two more than last season – and as many defeats as they suffered in the maiden edition of Japan Rugby League One when they finished sixth.

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