The 2015/16 domestic rugby season in Japan draws towards it climax this weekend, with the Lixil Cup semi-finals this Saturday giving us our two Top League finalists, who will meet next weekend for the top prize in Japanese rugby.
Tokyo plays host to Panasonic Wild Knights and Kobelco Steelers on Saturday, both of whom progressed to this season’s semi-finals with ease after comfortable quarterfinal victories last weekend.
Steelers make just the one change from their 42-10 thrashing of Kintetsu Liners last time out. 28-year-old Hideki Tanabe comes in for Ryohei Yamanaka at stand-off as the Kobe-based club aim to progress to the title play-off final for the first time in the Top League era (since 2003/04 season). The Steelers have bowed out at this stage of the competition in each of the past four seasons though, something that will surely play on head coach Allister Coetzee’s mind going into this encounter.
Panasonic name an unchanged XV from their comprehensive 46-6 defeat of Canon Eagles last weekend as they chase a third-consecutive Top League title. The Wild Knights have featured in seven of the last eight Top League title play-off finals and 25-year-old stand-off Hayden Parker goes into this match in fine form off the back of kicking 26 of a possible 26 points in that quarterfinal against Canon. Despite not losing a single game during the regular season this term, Panasonic failed to win on just one occasion - they drew 17-17 with Toshiba last time they played at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya stadium in early December.
That semi-final also sees Springboks JP Pietersen and Andries Bekker of Panasonic and Kobelco respectively go head-to-head, with the latter in good shape having scored a second-half try last weekend. Fellow South African Jaque Fourie, who capped his country on 72 occasions, is on the bench for Steelers but should certainly feature in the second half.
Osaka is the base for the other semi-final of the day as Tokyo-based club Toshiba Brave Lupus take on World Cup heartthrob Ayumu Goromaru’s Yamaha Jubilo team.
After failing to make the Top League title play-offs for seven consecutive seasons, Yamaha ended the 2014/15 season as runners-up after being defeated by Panasonic in the final. The Shizuoka club did clinch one piece of silverware last term though, triumphing in the All-Japan Rugby Football Championship, the post-season tournament between Top League and university sides, for the first time in the team’s history.
Yamaha have named the same 23-man squad that secured a 26-7 win against NTT Shining Arcs last Saturday. Toshiba make just one change - and that comes in the scrum - with second-row Yuya Odo making way for Keisuke Matsuda.
With Japan national team captain Michael Leitch at the heart of the side, Toshiba will approach this semi-final clash full of confidence. The club have a strong pedigree in the title play-offs and are the only Top League club to have progressed to the play-offs in every season since the league began in 2003.
Lupus boast a variety of nationalities within their 23-man team too. New Zealand outside centre Richard Kahui starts the game, as does Springbok full-back Francois Steyn, who in 2012 became the youngest South Africa player to reach 50 test caps. Another All Black in the form of Steven Bates and Frenchman Nicolas Kraska also make up the replacements bench for Toshiba.