Japan Rugby Top League 2017-2018: Round 13 Wrap-up

At the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground in Tokyo on Sunday, NEC Green Rockets went down 16-13 to NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in the early game of a double header. In their first season back in Top League, Docomo picked up an impressive six wins along the way to give them 26 points from their thirteen games in the regular season. In a tight first half, the Red Hurricanes took the honours with a try to lock Joe Inogi along with the conversion and a penalty from five-eighth Riaan Viljoen giving the NTT side a 10-0 lead at the break. As the second half got underway, NEC fought back with a penalty to flyhalf Yosuke Morita followed by a converted try to No8 George Risale to even things up at 10-all. Going into the final quarter, NEC hit the front for the first time with a further penalty from Morita. However, with the game poised on a knife’s edge, Viljoen tipped the result to Docomo with two late penalties giving the Red Hurricanes a stirring victory. NEC finished with six wins and seven losses giving them 26 points on the White Conference ladder.

In the second game at Chichibu, Ricoh Black Rams beat Canon Eagles 40-24. Consequently, Ricoh with nine wins for four losses claimed third place on the White Conference table behind Panasonic and Yamaha with 43 points. The Black Rams are having a memorable season and they took the challenge from the Eagles in their stride with this resounding five-tries-to-one victory. Ricoh did not have things all their own way though, as Canon got out of the blocks fast to build an early 14-0 lead. The Black Rams kept their composure and played their way back into the contest with tries to No8 Colin Bourke and centre Amanaki Lotoahea helping Ricoh to a 15-14 lead at the break. Right wing Masaki Watanabe touched down early in the latter half to extend the lead before a converted try to Canon halfback Koki Arai brought the margin back to 25-21. The sides then traded penalties before the Black Rams put on a final spurt with two late tries sealing the victory.

At the Ajinomoto Stadium in western Tokyo, Suntory Sungoliath subdued Toshiba Brave Lupus 28-24 in a thrilling Fuchu derby. In one of the better games of the season where the lead changed hands on regular occasions, Toshiba outscored Suntory four tries to three only to see the winning points go the way of their rivals. Toshiba fullback Coenraad van Wyk posted first points with an early try, but Suntory struck back with a converted try to right wing Takaaki Nakazuru giving them a 7-5 lead after 25 minutes of play. A converted try to veteran hooker Hiroki Yuhara put the Brave Lupus back in front 12-7, but three penalties to Ryoto Nakamura before and after the break put the Sungoliath out to a 16-12 lead. The tit-for-tat nature of the game continued when Toshiba left wing Kai Ishii crossed the Suntory whitewash to restore the lead to the Brave Lupus. Heading into the final ten minutes of play, Nakamura scored for Suntory and then converted his own try to put the Sungoliath ahead 23-17. As the clock ticked down though, there was still time enough for more drama. Toshiba grabbed a 24-23 lead with a converted try to replacement Shohei Toyoshima only for Suntory to grab it back one last time through Wallaby back-rower Sean McMahon. Although there were many likely candidates, Suntory centre Campbell Magnay was the man of the match.

At the Fukuda Denshi Arena in Chiba prefecture, Kubota Spears ground out a hard-fought 23-17 win over NTT Communications Shining Arcs. NTT Communications outscored Kubota three tries to two, but three early penalties from five-eighth Hideyuki Moriwaki proved to be decisive at the end of the 80 minutes of play. South African centre Lionel Mapoe touched down for the Spears late in the opening half with the conversion from Moriwaki giving Kubota a 16-0 lead at halftime. NTT came back strongly in the second half with tries to Amanaki Mafi and wing Ryo Tsuruda narrowing the difference to 16-10. No8 Willie Britz completed the fightback with the third NTT try with the successful conversion from Elton Jantjies pushing the Shining Arcs into the lead for the first time at 17-16. However, the turning point came in the thirty-first minute when Mapoe crossed for his second five pointer. The conversion from fullback Kazuhiro Goya edged the lead out to 23-17. The scoreboard remained unchanged down to the final whistle with the Spears collecting the win.

In a double header at the Paloma Mizuho Rugby Ground in Nagoya, Kintetsu Liners beat Coca-Cola Red Sparks 36-20 in the early game. After six loses in a row, Kintetsu notched up their first win since round six, but for Coca-Cola, they finished the regular season with 13 straight losses. A brace to left wing Taichi Yoshizawa helped the Red Sparks out to a 12-3 lead midway through the first half, only to see the Liners come back over the closing stages of the half. Half Kim Chul-won and right wing Naoki Morita dotted down for Kintetsu as they edged past Coca-Cola to take a 15-12 lead into the break. Coca-Cola fullback Daniel Peters evened things up with a penalty early in the second half before tries to lock Isamu Matsuoka and replacement prop Yuki Asaoka pushed Kintetsu ahead 29-15. Inside the final 10 minutes of play, right wing Masakazu Yatsumonji touched down to give Coca-Cola a sniff, but Kintetsu closed out the contest when veteran playmaker Yasumasa Shigemitsu crossed for a late try.

In the second game at Nagoya, Toyota Verblitz had to come from behind to beat Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers 39-33 in one of the major games of the final round. With time all but up on the clock, Kobe held on grimly to a one-point lead, only to see Lionel Cronje cross for the match-winning try. Cronje converted his own try to widen the final gap in a game that slipped throw the fingers of the Steelers. Tries to hooker Yoshikatsu Hikosaka and lock Jason Jenkins got Toyota out to an early 14-0 lead before Kobe responded with a try to flanker Daiki Hashimoto. Further Toyota tries to wings Seiyu Kohara and Jamie Henry blew out the score to 26-5, but tries to centre Ryohei Yamanaka and hooker Takeshi Kizu closed the gap to 29-19 by the break. The Steelers continued their fightback throughout the second half with a penalty try and a converted try to halfback Andy Ellis giving Kobe that one-point lead right up to the final minute of the game. Cronje saved the day for the Verblitz while spoiling the party for the Steelers in an enthralling match that lived up to its billing.

Elsewhere, Yamaha Jubilo hosted undefeated Panasonic Wild Knights at their Yamaha Stadium in Iwata city in Shizuoka with Panasonic winning 44-19. After a slow start that saw Yamaha lead 12-6 at halftime and then 19-6 early in the second half, Panasonic came home with a wet sail. The Wild Knights piled on five unanswered tries over the final 30 minutes of the game to stun the Jubilo into submission. Lock Sam Wykes, right wing Akihito Yamada, replacement five-eighth Takuya Yamasawa, flanker Masaki Tani and replacement wing Iori Kaji scored the tries for Panasonic in the second half blitzkrieg as Panasonic completed the regular season without a loss. Yamaha captain and No8 Kyosuke Horie lead the way early on with the first try of the match and this was followed by further five pointers to centre Hiroto Kobayashi and hooker Takeshi Hino. Yamaha seemed to be in control of the match, but Panasonic came to life and showed all and sundry why they are clear favourites to take the title this year.

In the final game of the regular season, Munakata Sanix Blues went down to Toyota Industries Shuttles 17-15 at the Mikuni World Stadium in Kitakyushu. Deep into injury time, Sanix held onto a 15-10 lead only for replacement lock Tsuyoshi Matsuoka to tie things up with a try at the death. Wing Katsuyuki Sakai then stepped up to the mark and nailed the conversion to give the Shuttles their second win of the season. In a tight first half, flyhalf Hiroshi Tashiro scored the only points through a penalty to give the Blues a 3-0 lead at halftime. Sam Greene made his mark for Toyota in the second half with a try, conversion and a penalty putting the Shuttles out to a 10-3 lead. Sanix came back with tries to Karne Hesketh and flanker Shohei Shitayama to push out to a 15-10 lead before the Shuttles stole the show in the end.