Japan Rugby Top League 2017-2018: Round 7 Preview

Date Team Score Team K/O Venue
Sat, 07 Oct 2017 Suntory   Sanix 11:30 Chichibu, Tokyo
  NTT Comm.   NTT Docomo 14:00 Chichibu, Tokyo
  Canon   Kobe 11:30 Kumagaya, Saitama
  Panasonic   Toyota Industries 14:00 Kumagaya, Saitama
  Ricoh   Toyota 14:00 Morioka, Iwate
  Kintetsu   Kubota 13:00 Tenri, Nara
  Coca-Cola   Toshiba 13:00 Nagasaki, Nagasaki
Sun, 08 Oct 2017 NEC   Yamaha 13:00 Akita, Akita

In the first game of a double header at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground in Tokyo on Saturday afternoon, Suntory Sungoliath play Munakata Sanix Blues. Suntory are on the right road to defending their Top League title with six straight wins keeping them on top of the Red Conference table. The Sungoliath have accumulated 29 competition points from a possible 30 and they look set to add Sanix to their growing list of wins. The Blues travel up to the nation’s capital from their base in Kyushu for the first time this season with everything to play for and nothing to lose. The men from Munakata city had a first-up win over Kyushu rivals Coca-Cola to get their season off on the right foot, but after that, it has been a run of five outs on the trot. For Suntory, Japan international tight head prop Kensuke Hatakeyama gets his first run-on start for the season in an all-international front row that includes Shintaro Ishihara and veteran hooker Yusuke Aoki. In the backs, the 10-12 combination of Kosei Ono and Matt Giteau is the best in the business. For the Blues, captain Nobuyoshi Arai at No8 has a big job ahead of him while Japan international Karne Hesketh gets a start on the wing rather than his usual role as an impact player from the bench.

In the second game at Chichibu, it is a battle of the Telcos with NTT Communications Shining Arcs playing NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes. NTT Communications are three and three and sit mid-table in the Red Conference with 14 points. Not to be outdone, though, Docomo also have three wins to their name with victories over Coca-Cola, Sanix and Kintetsu, in spite of the fact they only won promotion back into Top League this season. Undoubtedly, these two NTT sides will put company loyalties aside for 80 minutes on Saturday afternoon as they both go in search of their fourth win of the season. In the Shining Arcs line-up, Willie Britz moves from lock to replace Amanaki Mafi at No8 while Kin Shokei starts on the bench with Masataka Tsuruya the game captain on the side of the scrum. In the backs, five-eighth Jumpei Ogura and centre Takuya Ishibashi are the key players. For Docomo, former Springbok Ryan Kankowski plays his first game for his new club at No8 after moving across from Toyota Industries earlier this season while compatriot Riaan Viljoen captains the side from fullback.

In another double header on Saturday, this time at the Kumagaya Rugby Ground in Saitama, Canon Eagles play Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers in the early game. Canon had the most unimaginable start to the year with five losses in a row, but then steadied the ship with a confidence-building win over Coca-Cola last round. The Eagles will need the optimum of confidence against Kobe who come into round seven with six straight wins under their belt. The Steelers, along with Suntory and Panasonic are the three remaining sides yet to taste defeat so far this season and they will not be willing to let that record slide against a Canon side not firing on all cylinders. For Canon, back-rower Muneyuki Uematsu replaces centre Ryohei Mitomo as captain this week, though he will start from the bench. Playmaker Juan-Claude Roos is out of the match-day squad this week after a flawless kicking display in the 33-29 win over Coca-Cola last week. For Kobe, flanker Shohei Maekawa continues to lead from the front and this good form has seen him selected in the wider national squad for the November internationals. Meanwhile, former Wallaby Adam Ashely-Cooper has settled into life in the number 15 jersey for the Steelers.

In the late game at Kumagaya, Panasonic Wild Knights play Toyota Industries Shuttles. Panasonic have had six impressive bonus-point wins to sit on top of the White Conference table with maximum points and all the signs are there that this star-studded outfit will continue the trend this weekend. The Shuttles are also in the White Conference, but with six straight losses sit at the opposite end of the table. The Industries almost had their first win of the season last week against Toshiba at Chichibu, but the Brave Lupus managed to grab victory from the jaws of defeat with a last-gasp try to continue the run of defeats for the Toyota side. Robbie Deans is giving a lot of his regular bench players a start this week with the likes of loose head Matt Mafi and hooker Atsushi Sakate in the run-on side. In a measure of the depth in the squad, flanker and captain Shunsuke Nunomaki will start from the bench leaving the way for David Pocock to start the match. In the backs, half Fumiaki Tanaka gets a rest with another current Japan international in the form of Keisuke Uchida the starting number nine. For the Shuttles, Australian-born lock Caderyn Neville and wing Benjamin Saunders had big games in the close loss to Toshiba, but as a unit, it will be all hands to the oars for Toyota industries if they are to make an impact on Panasonic.

At the Iwate Bank Stadium in Morioka city, Iwate on Saturday afternoon, Ricoh Black Rams play Toyota Verblitz. So far this season, Ricoh have four wins and two losses from their six games and sit in third place on the White Conference table on 19 points. Meanwhile, Toyota are a mirror image of their opposition as they also have four wins and two losses and sit in third place on the Red Conference table on 19 points. The Black Rams and the Verblitz have both lost to the strongest teams in the league such as Suntory, Panasonic and Yamaha, but have managed to beat teams below them. With not so much as a split hair between them coming into this clash, the fans up north should be in for a fair and even contest. After picking up the man-of-the-match award for the past two weeks in a row, lock Michael Broadhurst is one of the big guns in the forwards for Ricoh. In the backs, Shota Yamamoto captains the side from the base of the scrum and his combination with Robbie Robinson at flyhalf will be an important aspect of the Ricoh game. For Toyota, Kazuki Himeno is leading the side well from the side of the scrum, flyhalf Lionel Cronje is performing exceptionally well in his first season in Japan and fullback Gio Aplon is coming off a hat-trick against Kubota last round.

Elsewhere on Saturday, at the Tenri Oyasato Rugby Stadium in Nara city, Kintetsu Liners play Kubota Spears. Kintetsu have not been in scintillating form so far this season, but they have still managed to rack up three wins for three losses. One of those wins came in their last outing when they beat Sanix 24-18 at the Global Arena and this will give them confidence against Kubota. On the other hand, the Spears have been found out against the stronger sides and come into round seven with only two wins over NTT Docomo and Toyota Industries to show for their efforts. Last week in Niigata, Kubota threw down the challenge to Toyota and in a high-scoring match ended up going down 50-40. If they can take that attitude to Nara, the Liners will be in for a difficult afternoon. Wing Ruan Combrinck could be facing a long spell on the sidelines after sustaining a shoulder injury against Sanix last Sunday and Kintetsu are bound to miss his services. Elsewhere, fullback Semisi Masirewa was one of the try scorers in the win over Sanix and he will want more ball in hand this round. The Kubota team is built around flyhalf Harumichi Tatekawa while he will have support from South African centre Lionel Mapoe who is promoted from the bench to the starting line-up this week.

In the final Saturday game, Coca-Cola Red Sparks play Toshiba Brave Lupus at the Kakidomari Sports Stadium in Nagasaki. The Red Sparks sit on the bottom of the White Conference table with only two points from six consecutive losses so far this season. On the other hand, the Brave Lupus are also having anything but a memorable season with two wins and four losses pushing them well down the Red Conference ladder. For Coca-Cola, there are no easy days and every game is a crunch game. The Red Sparks outscored Canon five tries to three last weekend, but still went on to lose the match 33-29. The way they played the game will give them encouragement though, as they prepare for the challenge of Toshiba. For Coca-Cola, the experienced players in the forwards such as captain Kota Yamashita and Masakazu Toyota have to front up while Japan international centres Tim Lafaele and William Tupou are the key personnel in the backs. Toshiba need to vastly improve on their efforts of last week with the experience of hooker Hiroki Yuhara as team captain and number 8 Michael Leitch leading the way while the inclusion of Cory Jane on the wing should create more opportunities in the backs.

In the only Sunday game in round seven, NEC Green Rockets play Yamaha Jubilo at the Akita Bank Stadium in Akita city in far northern Honshu. NEC have three wins and three losses from their six preceding games to sit mid-table in the White Conference. Meanwhile, Yamaha fell to their second loss of the season last week when they went down 38-19 to Kobe in Shizuoka, but hold on to second place in the White Conference. NEC are also coming off a 29-3 loss to Ricoh last Friday and so they will be looking to rebound as well. The Green Rockets failed to fire against Ricoh and consequently the likes of skipper Sunao Takizawa in the front row, big Fijian lock Sanaila Waqa and No8 Adam Thomson have to come out firing if NEC are to stand a chance against the Jubilo. Yamaha should be disappointed with the nature of the loss to Kobe and likewise, the big names in their squad have to perform. Flanker Hayato Nishiuchi is captain this week with Kyosuke Horie out of the side while Mose Tuiali’i comes up from the bench at No8 to replace Horie. Yamaha will also be looking to their strike players in the backs such as centre Male Sa’u and wing Chikara Ito to make a difference.