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.