League One Play-Offs See the Rise of a New Champion and Challenger

With the 2022/23 Japan Rugby League One season coming to an exciting conclusion over the weekend, Japan’s elite club competition saw the rise of two new challengers contesting for honours at the top end of the table.

On Friday 19 June, at Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium in Tokyo, Suntory Sungoliath and the Yokohama Canon Eagles battled it out in the third-place play-off, while the following day, Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay took on reigning champions, the Saitama Wild Knights at Tokyo’s National Stadium.

For Canon, it was their first regular season top-four finish, while Kubota, who finished the regular season in second place behind the Wild Knights, made their first appearance in the final, having fallen short in last year’s semi-finals, finishing the 2022 season in fourth place.

Following a week of glorious Tokyo spring sunshine, the rugby gods conspired to bring heavy rain which fell throughout the Friday. The 8,000 plus strong crowd, which if not for the rain, would have undoubtedly been larger, witnessed a gripping contest in which Canon overcame a powerful Suntory forward pack and the slippery conditions to win the match 26-20. The team from Yokohama were able to exact revenge on a Sungoliath team that had beaten them twice during the regular season.

With Canon celebrating their third-place finish and best ever league result, all eyes then turned to the National Stadium the following day for the big showdown between five-time League One and Top League champions, and 2022 title holders, the Saitama Wild Knights and the Kubota Spears. With the clouds having been drained the day before, Tokyo turned on perfect rugby weather with cool, dry conditions, and virtually no wind to speak of.

A crowd just shy of 42,000 came out in force, with a roughly even split between Kubota’s Orange Army and the blue clad fans of the Wild Knights. In a game in which the reigning champions struggled to find attacking cohesion, Kubota maintained continual pressure through a dominant kicking display and dogged defence. The boot of Kubota’s flyhalf Bernhard Foley was the difference in the early stages, with three penalty goals from the Australian to the Wild Knights’ sole penalty, for a 3-9 halftime score in favour of Kubota.

Foley then added his fourth penalty, six minutes into the second half for a score of 3-12. Recognising things were not going to plan, the Wild Knights started to draw from their reserves bench early in the second half. In the 58th minute, off the back of a 10-meter attacking lineout, the Wild Nights forward pack drove their rolling maul over the line for reserve hooker Shota Horie to score the games first try. Converted by replacement flyhalf Takuya Yamasawa, the team from Saitama made it a two-point ball game with a score of 10-12.

They followed this up in the 65th minute with a barnstorming try to right-wing Tomoki Osada. With the tide seeming to be turning in favour of the Wild Knights, Yamasawa sent the conversion wide, leaving the score at 15-12, with the Wild Knights in the lead for the first time in the match.

Just four minutes later, with Kubota deep in attack, their Captain and eventual man-of-the-match, inside-centre Harumichi Tatekawa put through an inch-perfect cross-field kick, straight into the arms of a flying Haruto Kida. The left-wing dotted down unopposed to send the Kubota fans into delirium. Bernard Foley missed the subsequent conversion, leaving the score 15-17 in favour of Kubota.

In the remaining nine minutes, which would have felt like an eternity for the nervous Kubota fans, their team hung on desperately to their two-point lead. However, hold on they did, and when the final whistle blew, Kubota kicked the ball to touch to win their first ever league title.

Commenting after the match, Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay Head Coach Frans Ludeke said:

“For seven years we’ve been building, so today is a special feeling. Every season we believed we could do something special. It took us until this year to play in the final, but we kept on growing as a team. That’s what makes it so special, the massive effort from everyone – trusting, believing, and just working hard. That’s how today happened.”

With the League One season now over and the World Cup fast approaching, attention now turns to the Brave Blossoms, with their first squad of the year to be announced by Head Coach Jamie Joseph on Wednesday, 24 May. The Brave Blossoms squad will be drawn from teams across League One, so the rise of Kubota and Canon to challenge the traditional League One powerhouse teams will be a welcome sign that competition within the league is as wide open as ever.