Round two of the playoffs will kick off this weekend with four remaining teams in with a chance of being crowned 2018 Japan Top League champion. The Red Conference is dominant with the Kobelco Steelers, Toyota Verblitz and Suntory Sungoliath through to the semi-finals alongside the sole representative of the White Conference, Yamaha Jubilo. Meanwhile the rest of the competition will be scrapping for the 5th to 16th rankings with the Shuttles, Red Dolphins, Blues and Red Sparks set to square off against the top four sides of the Top Challenge League (Division two) in a promotion/relegation playoff. Six games will be held on Saturday, including both semi-finals with two more games being played on Sunday.
The Steelers from Kobe take on old rival and foe Toyota Verblitz -the only team in the Red Conference that withstood the relentless red machine this year. Back in round four of the pool games the Aichi-based side came within a whisker of beating Kobelco at home but had to settle for a 26 all draw. The heroes that day were fly-half Dan Carter who contributed 16 points for the Steelers and no. 10 Lionel Cronje who kept Verblitz in touch with seven penalties. This time round though, Verblitz will be in the Steelers own backyard, and that may prove to be the difference between two evenly balanced sides. Last week Kobelco cruised past visiting Ricoh 63-27 with Carter shining once again, scoring a personal tally of 28 points including two five-pointers. Winger Anderson Fraser also picked up a hat-trick as the home side destroyed the Black Rams on all fronts. Verblitz meanwhile made history by denying Panasonic Wild Knights a 12th consecutive semi-final appearance. A star performance from center Clinton Swart who scored a try, set up two more, and handled the kicking duties, helped the Toyota side run out 31-27 winners over last year’s finalists.
There’s virtually nothing separating these teams apart from the fact that Steelers will be at home. Kobelco boasts the best attacking numbers but Toyota’s defense is rock solid and it will require something special from the Red Conference’s top seed to pierce it. If the home side can reduce the number of kickable penalties it served up to Verblitz last time, then Kobelco should sneak this one by seven points or less.
The second semi-final sees defending champion Suntory Sungoliath at home against top seed Yamaha Jubilo. Last weekend at Chichibunomiya, Sungoliath held on by the skin of its teeth to clip the Kubota Spears 28-26. At the halfway point the five-time champions had the Spears on the ropes, scoring three tries to one to move out in front 25-7. The second 40 however was all Kubota as Suntory wilted allowing three more tries. The home side could only manage a solitary second-half penalty but that turned out to be enough to clinch victory. Yamaha will be eyeing that second-half melt-down by Sungoliath as a definite area to exploit. The Shizuoka team comfortably beat the NTT Shining Arcs 33-21 at Yamaha Stadium thanks to the visitors being reduced to 14 men in the 13th minute of the second half. Jubilo capitalized on the numbers advantage with ruthless efficiency, scoring two tries in eight minutes to blow out its lead to 17 points heading into the final quarter. NTT struck back with a converted try but the damage had been done and Yamaha closed out the match to secure its berth in the semi-finals.
This is another tough match to call. Last Saturday, Suntory looked vulnerable for the final 40 minutes as Kubota controlled possession and applied pressure. Out of four home matches this season though, Suntory has dropped just one ( 20-36 to the Steelers) bu truth be told, Sungoliath was extremely lucky to come away with a victory against the Spears. Yamaha has been in dominant form all season, and on the road has a record of two wins and one loss including a hard-fought 20-18 victory over Kubota. In addition, Jubilo finished the pool games with the second best defense; conceding just 112 points (Panasonic allowed 96). Suntory doesn’t look nearly as clinical as last year’s championship team and has shown signs of crumbling under pressure – something which Yamaha will bring a lot of. Apart from the loss to Panasonic in round four, the team from Shizuoka has looked in commanding form. An upset is on the cards. Yamaha Jubilo should edge the defending champs by seven points or less.
Matches to Determine 5th to 8th Place
It was a disappointing end to both these teams’ championship ambitions. In the quarterfinals Ricoh was hammered by Kobelco and Panasonic was ousted by a strong Toyota Verblitz side that took its chances. Panasonic’s Coach Robbie Deans is sure to have been frustrated with uncharacteristic defensive lapses in the mid-field that cost his side a place in the semis. One thing for sure though - there will be a Panasonic back-lash, and this Saturday’s game is gearing up to be the perfect setting. The Black Rams were the only team to down the Wild Knights, winning 17-26 in round six which also makes this something of a revenge match for Dean’s men.
Not only did Panasonic fail to reach the semi-finals for the first time since the 2006-2007 Top League competition but during the pool games, the Wild Knights also lost at home to a Black Rams side that finished two places below them in the White Conference. These facts alone should be more than enough motivation for the Panasonic Wild Knights to come out firing and take the Black Rams out by 15 points or more.
Luck just didn’t go Kubota’s way last Saturday against Suntory as the Chiba-based team pushed the defending champions all the way in a pulsating match of two distinctly different halves. The Spears will rue letting in a couple of soft tries in the first half but they have a chance to bounce back against the Shining Arcs who arguably also let their quarter-final slip away. Rob Penney, NTT’s Coach had selected Japanese international loose forward Amanaki Mafi to start the match against Jubilo only to see his big, powerful ball-carrier get yellow carded for cynical play just inside the second half. With Yamaha leading 19-14 up until that point, the Shining Arcs were still well in the contest, but they conceded 14 points while Mafi was in the bin and it was game over. Over the years the Shining Arcs have had the rub of the green over the Spears winning five out of seven encounters. Last season though, Kubota pipped NTT 23-17 with home advantage.
The Spears have been the more consistent side all season while the Shining Arcs have struggled to go hard the full 80 minutes. Kubota should again be too strong and put away the visitors by seven points or less.
Matches to Determine 9th to 12th Place
NEC had an easy one last week racking up a 43-17 victory over the bumbling Coca-Cola Red Sparks. This week however the Green Rockets face markedly stiffer competition. Toshiba Brave Lupus also enjoyed a comfortable win last time out, smashing Top League newcomers the Hino Red Dragons 48-26.
Toshiba has won the last six matches between these two sides by an average score of 29 - 18. Despite having home advantage, the Green Rockets should be no match for Brave Lupus. The team from Tokyo possesses too much pace and power for the home side and therefore should bring down the Green Rockets by seven or more points.
Last Sunday the Canon Eagles thoroughly dismantled Toyota Industries Shuttles 51-17, outscoring the home side seven tries to two. What was interesting was that the last points of the match were scored in the 15th minute of the second half. For the remaining 25 minutes the Eagles went to sleep and the Shuttles emptied out their bench leading to a scrappy ending that produced no more scoring for either team. In a very different game Honda beat a resurgent Blues outfit that had drawn level at 24-24 heading into the third quarter. Unlike the Eagles v the Shuttles second-half fizzler, three tries rounded off the match. Two of those five-pointers came from the Heat as they managed to quell a Blues come-back and run out 38-34 victors.
In round two of the group games these two teams ground out a 19-19 draw. After leading the Heat for almost the entire game, Canon let Honda off the hook by allowing a converted try by the home team in the 81st minute. This time round the Eagles are at home and will be aiming to apply early scoreboard pressure and stay out in front. If Canon can achieve that then the Heat should be overpowered by 10 points or more.
Matches to Determine 13th to 16th Place
Last week, as expected, the Red Sparks were down 5-24 to Green Rockets going into the changing sheds at the half. The second half witnessed a much improved score-line of 12-19. In similar circumstances, the Red Dolphins found themselves 16 points behind on the scoreboard against Brave Lupus. However Hino bounced back with three converted tries in the last 8 minutes to finish the stronger of the two teams.
The Coca-Cola side hasn’t won a single game all season due to massive defensive issues that have plagued its performances week in, week out. Hino has secured just one win - a 33-3 drubbing of the Blues in its opening game- since its promotion to the Top League. This season in attack the Red Dolphins have accumulated 62 points more the Red Sparks. so the visitors should beat Coca-Cola by 10 points or more.
All through this season the Shuttles have been absolutely pummeled in the first 40 by the opposition. Then in the second half a mini fight-back is set in motion - although it’s never quite enough to worry their opponents. Last week the Toyota Industries side was on the receiving end of a first-half flogging by visiting Canon, conceding 36 points while managing only 10. However, the second 40 saw the home side restrict the visitors to just two tries while scoring one of their own. What’s more impressive is that damage control went into overdrive with the Shuttles actually keeping the Eagles scoreless for the last 25 minutes of the match! The Blues aren’t much different in the way they approach games except that there is usually no extra effort to make the score-line a little more respectable come the final hooter. With virtually nothing to play for last week against Honda, Munakata Sanix put up a rare dominating second-half performance that had the Heat’s fans squirming in their seats. In the end though the Blues fell an agonizing five points short of what could have been the first win of their miserable season.
Toyota Industries has secured three wins since its promotion to the Top League. The Blues meanwhile have had to endure a depressing winless season for their players and supporters alike. It generally takes the Shuttles one half to get the ball rolling but this match against the wobbly Blues should produce a more complete performance from the home side. Toyota Industries Shuttles ought to win this match comfortably by 10 points or more.