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.