There will be sweaty palms among senior officials at Top League and JRFU, silently praying that NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes come out on top against Kintetsu Liners on Saturday to spare their blushes.
While the Top League Final – also doubled up as the All-Japan Rugby Championship for this season – between Suntory and Panasonic will take be the main card for most fans of Japanese rugby this weekend, the story background behind the relegation play-off between NTT Docomo and Kintetsu makes for an intriguing read.
The format of this season’s Top League saw the competition split into two, in theory, equal conferences consisting of eight teams each. The 7th-placed side in each conference would play the 8th-placed team in the other conference, and vice-versa, with the losing side from each match facing off in a relegation play-off. The loser of that game is relegated directly to the second tier.
While Munakata Sanix and Coca-Cola arguably deservedly occupied the bottom two places of the White Conference with a record of W1, L12 and W0, L13 respectively, the bottom two sides of the Red Conference in Kintetsu (W4, L9) and NTT Docomo (W6, L7) can rightly feel aggrieved to now be 80 minutes away from dropping to the second division, having lost to Munakata and Coca-Cola last weekend in the semi-finals.
Coca-Cola’s win against NTT Docomo last weekend in the semi-final was their first of the season, having lost all 13 regular season matches. That solitary victory keeps them out of the direct relegation play-off, with Coca-Cola’s regular season points tally of 3 compared to NTT Docomo’s 26 points proving meaningless. If placed in the other conference, NTT Docomo would have finished in a comfortable 5th place, with only points difference separating them and 4th-placed NEC.
Kintetsu can justly feel hard done by too, having accumulated more wins than the bottom three teams of the White Conference as they harshly stand on the brink of a first relegation since 2005 after a 10-year stay in the top flight of Japanese Rugby.
Neither Kintetsu nor NTT Docomo deserve to drop down to the second tier based on their performances and points this campaign. One team must, however, be relegated in what is the latest farcical chapter of Japanese rugby.
Suntory Sungoliath will face Panasonic Wild Knights in the Top League Final next Sunday, following their comfortable 49-7 win against an out-of-sorts Yamaha side. Suntory had put the game beyond doubt by the break with four unanswered converted tries, crossing three more times after the interval to book their place in the final and keep them on track for consecutive titles.
Toyota Verblitz, making their first semi-final appearance in seven seasons, came up just short against Panasonic as Jake White’s side lost 17-11 to the four-time Top League champions. Kenki Fukuoka and Digby Ioane’s first-half tries for Panasonic were enough to see them over the line at Yanmar Stadium in Osaka.
In the relegation play-offs, Coca-Cola Red Sparks, having lost all 13 of their regular season matches, mustered a timely first victory of the campaign against NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes. With the scores level at 14-14, an 80th-minute try from rookie scrum half Masafumi Tanabe condemned NTT Docomo to the direct relegation play-off.
Kintetsu will be the opponents for NTT Docomo in that game next weekend, with their dismal season reaching new lows with a 29-8 defeat to Munakata Sanix Blues in Nagoya. 16 points from experienced fly-half Hiroshi Tashiro ensure Munakata will not take part in the direct relegation play-off, while the loser of Kintetsu and NTT Docomo will be relegated to the Top Challenge League.
In the 5th-8th place play-offs, Kobelco Steelers were 19-10 winners against Ricoh Black Rams, while Toshiba overcame NEC 29-22 courtesy of a brace of tries from Richard Kahui.
In the 9th-12th place play-offs, Kubota lost 31-30 to Canon in a tough-fought affair, while NTT Com prevailed 27-19 against Toyota Industries Shuttles.
Yamaha Jubilo made history on Sunday by securing their sixth successive victory of the 2016 Top League campaign, therefore equalling a club record of six straight league wins from the 2005 season. The Shizuoka club ran out 53-0 winners against Kubota Spears, who continue to endure a miserable start to the season. Male Sa’u notched a brace of tries for Yamaha, while Takeshi Hino kept up his try-scoring form by crossing for his sixth try of the campaign.
Suntory also maintained their 100% start to the season with a 41-8 victory over Munakata Sanix Blues on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Nagasaki. Sungoliath winger Takaaki Nakaduru bagged a hat-trick of tries after scoring two last weekend – the 25-year-old now has six tries in his last three Top League games.
Toshiba were awarded two penalty tries in their 31-12 defeat of bottom club Honda Heat and are appear to be back on track having previously lost successive league games for the first time in 34 months.
22-year-old Takuya Yamasawa became the first university student in history to score points in the Top League, bagging 26 of Panasonic’s 56 points in their 51-26 win against NEC. JC Roos’ boot was key for Canon in the early Saturday game at Kumagaya as the former Blue Bulls and Pumas man kicked 16 points in his side’s 31 victory against Toyota Industries Shuttles, who are yet to pick up a win this season.
Fans at Hanazono on Saturday afternoon were treated to a 12-try thriller as Kobelco narrowly edged Ricoh 45-39 courtesy of a late Codey Rei try. Centre Tonisio Vaihu, Jaque Fourie and Andrew Ellis all crossed for Kobe, who now sit third in the Top League table.
Toyota Verblitz survived a late comeback from Kintetsu in the early game at Hanazono, securing a 25-19 win. Kintetsu, who made the final four of the LIXIL Cup (post-season play-off tournament) last season, have won just two of their six matches this season.
NTT Com fly half Junpei Ogura kicked a decisive 77th-minute penalty to see off Coca-Cola 17-14 with neither side scoring points until mid-way through the second forty. Ogura has now scored 67 points this season – only new Yamaha arrival Gerhard van den Heever (69), Codey Rei (74) and Kosei Ono (78) have notched more this season in the Top League.
Yamaha Jubilo are the new leaders in the Top League following their bonus-point 43-10 victory away to Munakata Sanix Blues. Gerhard van den Heever scored 16 of Yamaha’s points, scoring the side’s third try of the game and successful with five of his six kicks.
Further tries from Male Sa’u, Viliami Tahitua (2), Duke Krishnan and Takeshi Hino, the hooker’s third in his last two TL games, inflicted Sanix’s first defeat of the season. Australian winger Andrew Everingham, who notched a hat-trick of tries last weekend for Munakata, crossed for the Kyushu club’s only try of the game.
Toyota Verblitz sit in second only by the virtue of point difference after Ben Lucas converted Yuki Kido’s 83rd-minute try, making it three wins from three for the Aichi prefecture club as they saw off Honda 32-30 in Suzuka. Digby Ioane ran in a brace of tries for Honda, who are still searching for their first win of the season.
A below-par Suntory performance was just about enough to see off Ricoh 23-17 in Tokyo on Saturday evening, having trailed 14-13 at the break. Suntory are one of four sides to have won all three games this season, along with Yamaha, Verblitz and Toshiba.
Suntory’s local rivals, Toshiba, also came from behind to grind out a third win. Scrum-half Takahiro Ogawa kicked a 79th-minute penalty to record a somewhat unconvincing 21-19 win over Canon Eagles at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama.
Berrick Barnes shone again for Panasonic in their 32-20 win away to Kintetsu Liners, while Springbok Grant Hattingh inspired Kubota to a hard-fought first season victory against Toyota Shuttles, coming from behind to prevail 24-22 in Tokyo.
Bottom club Coca-Cola seemingly have a long season ahead after a 48-7 defeat to Kobelco Steelers in Ishikawa. Rakuhei Yamashita, whose namesake Hiroshi made his 100th Top League appearance in the same game, scored three tries for Kobelco.
Jumpei Ogura’s boot was the different between NTT Com and NEC on Friday evening as the 24-year-old fly half kicked 18 points from a possible 18 to hand his side their second win on the spin and leave NEC still without a victory in the Top League this season.
Suntory Sungoliath recorded the biggest victory of the 2016-17 Top League season to far with their 50-0 thumping of Honda Heat, marking Suntory’s complete first shut-out in the Japanese top flight in almost a decade (Dec 12th 2006 v NEC – 43-0). George Smith scored his first Top League try since returning to Suntory, sandwiched between a Hendrik Tui double to put the Tokyo team on the path to victory.
Toshiba also made it two wins from two this season after defeating NEC 25-8 in Tokyo on Friday evening. It was Hikaru Tamura, who came out on top against brother Yu, as the stand-offs crossed paths for the first time in the Top League. Liam Messum, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Shohei Toyoshima and Takahiro Ogawa all crossed for Lupus.
Yamaha hooker Takeshi Hino bagged a brace of tries in Yamaha’s 35-16 win over Canon, while Berrick Barnes scored 20 of Panasonic’s 30 points as they saw off Kobelco 30-6 to bounce back from their opening weekend defeat to Kubota in the other two Friday evening fixtures.
Kubota were unable to replicate their heroics from that Panasonic victory on matchday 2 as they succumbed to a 27-10 defeat to Toyota Verblitz in Sapporo. Verblitz are the only team to have secured maximum points from the opening two matchdays and consequently top the table.
Andrew Everingham became the second player to bag a hat-trick of tries this season in Sanix’s 41-38 win over Toyota Industries. Stand-off Hiroshi Tashiro kicked a penalty two minutes from time to secure the Kyushu club’s second win on the bounce in their latest stint in the top flight.
Two tries from Brackin Karauria-Henry helped NTT Com to a 28-13 win over Ricoh in the Saturday evening game in Tokyo, while Luke Thompson, Jean Cook and Andre Taylor notched a try each in Kintetsu Liners' first win of the season as they were 26-19 winners over Coca-Cola.
1. Daiki Toyota (Kintestu): Toyota made 33 metres with his six carries, and will consider himself unfortunate to have ended up on the losing side against Suntory.
2. Takeshi Hino (Yamaha): Hino was at the heart of the Yamaha scrum that was key in inflicting Panasonic’s first Top League defeat in 20 months. Hino won one turnover and 13 of his 15 line-out throws.
3. Yusuke Aoki (Suntory): All 12 of Aoki’s line-outs were successful. He also made five tackles (none missed) in Suntory’s defeat of Kintetsu.
4. Luke Thompson (Kintetsu): The Kintetsu second-row made 16 tackles (none missed) v Suntory, along with five successful line-out catches (none missed).
5. Takeshi Mabuchi (Ricoh): The Ricoh lock didn’t miss a single tackle in his team’s defeat of NEC Green Rockets, also stealing one line-out.
6. Mose Tuiali’i (Yamaha): No player in the Top League won more turnovers than Tuiali’i this weekend (2). The Tongan also made the most carries (10), beat the most defenders (5) and made the most metres (29) among all forwards in their hard-fought win over Panasonic.
7. Malgene Ilaua (Toshiba): The Teikyo University graduate put in a fine defensive display on his first Top League appearance, making more tackles than any other player on matchday 1 (22).
8. Yuki Shishimoto (Kubota) : The 27-year-old made 78 metres against Toshiba, more than any other forward on matchday 1.
9. Takahiro Ogawa (Toshiba): The scrum-half may not have enjoyed the best of days with his boot(3/5), but his 40m gained was a team-best second only to Hisayoshi Matsuoka in their defeat of Kubota.
10. Hiroshi Tashiro (Sanix): Tashiro scored more than half of Munakata’s 33 points in their win against Honda, crossing for two tries and kicking seven points to ensure the Kyushu-based club’s winning start upon their Top League return.
11. Hisayoshi Matsuoka (Toshiba): The 24-year-old contributed to Toshiba’s victory over Kubota with two tries and made 51 metres, more than any other Toshiba player.
12. Steven Yates (Toyota Verblitz): The New Zealand-born centre, now in his seventh season with Verblitz, crossed for a quick-fire hat-trick of tries in the first half to put his side on course for an opening weekend victory against Toyota Industries.
13. Katoni Otukolo (Kubota): Otukolo made twice as many metres than any other Top League player on matchday 1 (189m). The 187cm centre also beat seven defenders - also a league high.
14. Akihito Yamada (Panasonic): Sunwolves’ leading try-scorer from their maiden Super Rugby campaign once again exhibited his agility and quick feet against Yamaha, scoring a brace of tries and beating six defenders.
15. Gerhard van den Heever (Yamaha): The new Yamaha recruit oozed composure at full-back in his first competitive outing for his new club, kicking a decisive nine points (4 from 4, three conversions + 1 pen). The South African also beat five defenders, the most by a Yamaha player (along with Tuiali’i).
Panasonic Wild Knights secured their third consecutive Top League title this afternoon in dramatic fashion by triumphing 27-26 over fellow Kanto-based club Toshiba Brave Lupus. Wild Knights looked to have wrapped the final after working a 13-point lead in the second half but Toshiba's 82nd-minute try meant Francois Steyn's conversion would decide the final. Alas. Steyn's conversion went wide and Panasonic were crowned champions.
Both Toshiba and Panasonic named unchanged starting XVs from their respective semi-final triumphs last weekend in front a capacity crowd packed inside of Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium.
Both teams went over for early tries inside the opening 10 minutes. Panasonic back-row Tadasuke Nishihara first crossed the line, with the ever-reliable Hayden Parker adding the extras. Japan national team captain Michael Leitch then responded two minutes later for Toshiba to square things at 7-7.
Francois Steyn's pin-point kick into touch paved the way for Toshiba to take control of the game at the mid-way point of the first half. Lupus, in their usual red and black, produced one of their textbook driving mauls from the resulting line-out as the Chichibunomiya crowd roared them over the line. Hiroshi Yamamoto the scorer for Lupus this time.
In a topsy-turvy final, Panasonic seemed to have drawn level two minutes later when the ball was passed wide to winger Kentaro Kodama on the blind side, who touched the ball down in the corner after being hauled down by Leitch. The referee blew for a try at first and only when the replay was shown on the big screen did he change his decision, after much uproar from the Toshiba bench and players alike. No try, was the verdict uponreferral to the video referee.
Toshiba couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet and still had to work the ball away from their try line, which they ultimately failed to do, generously handing over possession to Panasonic. Japan international and soon-to-be Sunwolves player Shota Horie crossed the line for the Wild Knights, having picked a hole in the Toshiba defence a metre out. Conversion successful too and the scores were level again.
Parker added a penalty two minutes from the break before Francois Steyn came up short with his drop-goal attempt from the half-way line, leaving the final delicately poised at the half-way stage with Panasonic leading 17-14.
Miscommunication between Steyn and winger and Toshiaki Hirose following a kick from Panasonic’s Fumiaki Tanaka had Toshiba under the cosh on their own try line. Lupus will have considered themselves fortunate not to have conceded a fourth try from that spell of Wild knights pressure, with Parker kicking for three points after Toshiba rather shamelessly collapsed the scrum.
Panasonic often dominated the territorial battle in the second half, leaving Toshiba stuck inside their own half for large portions of the match. A rare break from scrum half Tanaka saw him come within metres of the try line. The ball then found JP Pietersen and the Springbok found the corner to hand his side an 11-point cushion with just under 20 minutes left to play. Parker converted to maintain his 100% success-rate throughout the duration of the campaign.
It seemed that would be the way it stayed with Toshiba’s handling costing them dear at times. Replacement Nicolas Kraska, a Frenchman born in Thailand had other ideas though. He surged through a gap in the Wild Knights’ defence to run in his side’s third try of the game, converted by Steyn, and reduce the deficit to just six points with 10 minutes left.
The Tokyo crowd made their voices heard and got behind their hometown club in hope of a late winning try. And they were rewarded for their efforts. Steyn's 82nd-minute kick into the corner bounced into the path of Toyoshima, who touched down to make it 27-26. The stadium held its breath as the full-back readied himself for the kick. Wide. Heartbreak for the Springbok and Toshiba but another Top League trophy for Panasonic as their dominance continues.
Yamaha Jubilo secured third spot in this season’s Top League by seeing off Kobelco Steelers 26-22 in a dramatic LIXIL Cup third-place play-off. In what was billed as the warm-up match to the final this afternoon in Tokyo, Yamaha’s ball handling skills and backs came up trumps despite the superiority of Kobelco’s forwards.
Kobelco fielded a somewhat depleted XV from the team that lost out to Panasonic last weekend, with Japan international Craig Wing and Springbok giant Andries Bekker both ruled out through injury, handing a rare start to Matt vant Leven in the no.8 spot.
For Yamaha, Tonga international Siale Piutau began the game on the wing in place of Havili Rocky, who was left out of the 23-man team altogether. Mose Tuiali’I meanwhile dropped to the replacements.
World Cup star Ayumu Goromaru’s carefully-placed punt upfield eased Yamaha into the Kobelco 22 for the first time in the game, where they stayed for the following five minutes after their opponents’ were blown up for offside and a knock on in the space of 90 seconds.
The Shizuoka-based team, kitted out in their usual sky blue jersey, ran in the first try from the resulting scrum. The ball was shipped wide to Tongan Piutau who, darted toward the line with intent but was stopped two metres short. No.8 Kyosuke Horie was fed the ball from the breakdown and he went over the line for five points. Attention then switched to Mr. Goromaru as the thousands of fans packed inside Chichibunomiya Stadium drew their phones for a picture of the infamous pose. There were audible gasps though when the full-back uncharacteristically dragged his kick wide of the posts.
It was from that point on that the game began to swing in Kobelco’s favour as their pack exerted their dominance on the tie. Jubilo were unable to cope with the sheer force of the Steelers’ pack, driven back ten metres from a line-out on two separate occasions before Kobe finally punished them with some points. Scrum half Andrew Ellis picked from the ruck and dived over the mountain of bodies to notch their first points of the game, with Ryohei Yamanaka adding the extras.. The fly half, who will join Japan’s first Super Rugby franchise the Sunwolves after the season, added a penalty minutes later and Steelers all of a sudden found themselves with a 10-5 lead.
Yamaha tried to pick holes in the Kobe defence but their handling cost them dear in the closing stages of the half, causing them to hand over possession to Steelers, from which they were made to pay again. New Zealand international Ellis rolled back the years, drawing on all his experience by running through the porous Yamaha defence with a tap-and-go penalty and comfortably crossing under the posts to ensure Steelers had a 17-5 advantage at the interval.
Yamaha didn’t lie down and die though. Though halted inches from the Kobelco line on several occasions in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, they finally got the better of the resilient Steelers’ defence on 51 minutes. Second-row Yuya Odo was the scorer of their second try of the game when he grasped the ball from a ruck on the Kobe try line to make the score 17-12 with Goromaru’s first successful attempt.
Yamanaka somehow sliced a penalty wide of the mark a minute later as he passed up the opportunity to put daylight between the two teams, a chance he would go on to rue.
Yamaha knew their strengths and those didn’t lie with the forwards, often opting to spin the ball wide rather than attempt to outmuscle the Kobe giants. They reaped their rewards from their persistence half-way through the second forty when Japan international Sale Ma’u sprinted from within his own 22 to touch down, upon much deliberation from the video referee, and give Yamaha the lead for the first time in the game.
Whether it was brave or pure naivety from Yamaha to continue to pass the ball out from the back remains to be seen, but the same tactic that reaped their third try was to blame for Kobelco’s third. Tsuyoshi Iguchi intercepted the ball 25 metres from the line to restore Steelers’ lead. Yamanaka was again off-target with the kick in what was turning into an off day for the Kobelco stand-off.
A try from replacement Shohei Awata, converted by Goromaru, then swung the pendulum firmly back in Yamaha’s favour with 10 minutes left on the clock. Kobelco pushed for a late try and what would be a late winner in the final minutes but to no avail. Yamaha secured third spot after finishing runners-up last season, a sure sign that the club is on the up.