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Japan Rugby League One Roars Back: Exciting Opening Weekend, Stellar Performances, and Power Shifts Unveiled

The opening day of the 2023-24 Japan Rugby League One campaign featured four intense matches, setting the stage for an action-packed season.

As the eagerly anticipated return of Japan Rugby League One unfolded on December 9, fans reveled in the exhilarating clashes that marked the opening round. The league's comeback kicked off in style with a strong total attendance of 70,575, capturing the essence of the sport's resurgence.

The opening day featured four intense matches, setting the stage for an action-packed season.

In a thrilling display of skill and strategy, the Kobelco Kobe Steelers stole the spotlight with a spectacular 80-15 victory, dominating the scoreboard. Jone Naikabula of Brave Lupus emerged as the early star, leading all players with an impressive 20 points from four tries.

The excitement continued on Sunday, December 10 with two more gripping matches, shaping the league's narrative. The second day of matches provided a showdown among the top four teams from the previous season (Spears, Wild Knights, Eagles, Sungoliath) resulting in a seismic shift in power dynamics within Japan Rugby League One. 

As the dust settled, the landscape of the league underwent a notable transformation, setting the stage for a season brimming with anticipation and intrigue.

Japan Rugby League One
Captain Rakuhei Yamashita of the Kobelco Kobe Steelers touches down for a first-half try against the Mie Honda Heat in a Japan Rugby League One season-opening match on December 9 in Kobe. (KYODO)

Steelers Launch Offensive Onslaught, Overpower Heat

The Kobelco Kobe Steelers' Takuya Kitade scored three tries, while Brodie Retallick and Ardie Savea each contributed two tries, making a powerful 80-point statement as they welcomed Division 1 newcomer Mie Honda Heat to the top flight.

Bryn Gatland added to the onslaught with 16 points from eight successful goals.

The Heat found themselves outplayed in the second half, with the Steelers dictating the pace by scoring five consecutive tries. Viliami Vuli managed to answer back for the Heat, but it turned out to be the last time they would cross the try line. The Steelers continued their dominance, adding three more tries before the final whistle blew.

In his post-match interview, Steelers head coach Dave Rennie expressed his gratitude for the win, and looks forward to fine-tuning the team's play.

"In offense, while we managed to score numerous tries, there were also some mistakes that prevented us from capitalizing on all opportunities," Rennie remarked. "On the defensive end, despite facing our opponents' strong attacks, there were moments when we couldn't boost our line speed. I believe there's still room for improvement, and continuous growth is crucial to succeed in challenging tournaments."

Last-Minute Penalty Seals Dynaboars' Comeback Victory

The Sagamihara Dynaboars kicked off the scoring with a penalty goal, but the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners swiftly responded with a try by Daisuke Noguchi, momentarily taking the lead. The Dynaboars, however, regained the advantage with another penalty goal, followed by a try from Honeti Taumohaapai

Then the back-and-forth action tilted briefly in the Liners' favor as they closed out the first half with a try, conversion, and penalty goal, leading 15-13.

In the second half, the Dynaboars once again took the initiative, securing the lead with consecutive tries by Tonishio Vaiahu and Curtis Rona. Undeterred, the Liners fought back with two tries of their own, courtesy of Will Genia and Yusho Takeda, reclaiming the lead at 29-27 with less than eight minutes remaining. 

In the dying seconds, a costly penalty was awarded to the Dynaboars, who capitalized on the field position to attempt a penalty kick, sealing the game with a narrow 30-29 victory.

In a post-match interview, Dynaboars head coach Glenn Delaney commented on the see-saw battle in the second half.

"I think the two tries made it 27-15, but [the Liners] quickly got a try after that due to a defensive mistake," Delaney said. "Momentum is very important in rugby. How we can accelerate as a team when we have momentum is important in order to take the next step.

"Our team as a whole is young in terms of experience, so we learn things like that every week. This week was a bad example. When we have momentum, we need to be a team that can use that momentum to move forward."

Jone Naikabula produces one of his three second-half tries for the Brave Lupus on December 9. (KYODO)
It's just a shoe!

Brave Lupus' Disciplined Defense Overwhelms BlueRevs

The Brave Lupus' Jone Naikabula stole the spotlight with four incredible tries, securing three of them in the second half to seal the fate of the BlueRevs. Naikabula's spectacular sideline run, marked by a goose step in the 30th minute of the first half, ignited a comeback for his club when they were trailing 17-10.

As the second half unfolded, the BlueRevs found themselves plagued by unforced errors and struggled to penetrate the formidable defense of the Brave Lupus. Despite a valiant effort by BlueRevs' veteran Kwagga Smith, who subbed in and promptly scored a try in the 25th minute, closing the gap to 36-28, it wasn't enough to spark a comeback. The Brave Lupus closed out the game with another try and conversion, securing a 43-30 victory.

After the match, Lupus captain Michael Leitch shared his thoughts on the performances of All Blacks stars Richie Mo'unga and Shannon Frizell in their first game.

"I thought that Mo'unga was smarter than he was fast, and his game control in terms of how to get the team forward was very good," Leitch told reporters. "Frizell can go forward when he has the ball, he can come forward and stop defensively, and he has very good lineout options, and both of them are having a great influence on the team."

New Verblitz teammates Aaron Smith (left) and Beauden Barrett in action against the BlackRams on December 9. (KYODO)

Verblitz's Swift Start Fades into Tight Victory Over BlackRams

In an opening set play, Toyota Verblitz's Viliame Tuidraki notched the first try in under 3 minutes, with Beauden Barrett converting for an early 7-0 lead. Yuki Okada added another try, putting Verblitz up 12-0, but the BlackRams pulled within 12-8 in the final 15 minutes of the half.

In the second half, there were missed opportunities for both teams, marked by bad ball control and sloppy play. Despite the entertaining back-and-forth, only Verblitz's Tiaan Falcon managed to score with a penalty goal kick in the 32nd minute. The BlackRams couldn't add to their first-half tally.

In a highly tactical game, Verblitz held on for a 15-8 win in front of their home crowd. Captain Kazuki Himeno expressed excitement about the impact of new recruits Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett in the team's early-game try.

"Tries like that were rare in [our] previous Toyota Verblitz, and I think [our offense] has become really speedy," Himeno said after the match. "With playmakers like Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith in our lineup, I anticipate that the new Toyota V rugby style will capitalize on their physical prowess while incorporating speed into our gameplay.

"Given their recent addition to the team, I believe they can further refine their synergy and become an even sharper force on the field."

Rugby League One
Tokyo Sungoliath's Cheslin Kolbe (left) makes a leaping catch of a high ball against the Kubota Spears' in the first half on December 10 at Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium. (ⒸSANKEI)

Kolbe's Brilliance Guides Sungoliath to Dominant Victory Over Reigning Champs

In a spectacular performance, the Ozaki brothers, Seiya and Taiga, scored three and two tries, respectively, while Mikiya Takamoto showcased precision with a 6/8 goal conversion rate, amassing 12 points. Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath displayed their dominance with a convincing 52-26 win over the reigning champion Kubota Spears.

Despite the Spears opening their scoring in the 23rd minute of the first half with a try from David Bulbring, Sungoliath maintained their momentum, answering with two additional tries. 

In the second half, the Spears attempted a comeback with three tries, but Sungoliath responded each time.

New recruit and Springboks star Cheslin Kolbe proved to be a game-changer, making disruptive defensive plays and creating chaos in attack. His ability to make crucial catches from mid-field punts significantly advanced his team into scoring range.

Sungoliath head coach Kiyonori Tanaka expressed high praise for Kolbe's debut performance in a post-match interview. 

"[Kolbe] exceeded my expectations in performance. He participated in a preseason game, and it seems like he seamlessly integrated into the team," Tanaka told reporters. "His prowess in handling high balls and the threat he poses to opponents when in possession are particularly noteworthy."

Ludeke Evaluates Spears’ Performance

Despite starting the new season with a loss, Orange Army head coach and Japanese national team candidate Frans Ludeke acknowledged Sungoliath's prowess and Kolbe's impactful presence, outlining their plan of action moving forward.

"We had a game plan to get out of the red zone and not play much in our own half, but the opposing team did the opposite by applying pressure with kicks and leading to counterattacks," Ludeke stated. "In particular, Cheslin Kolbe showed a great performance. In those situations, we couldn't play our rugby in the first half."

Ludeke added, "We will continue to pursue the process of correcting what needs to be corrected, which is part of our DNA, as we prepare for the next match. I would like to focus on one or two main points and move forward from next week onwards."

Rikiya Matsuda of the Saitama Wild Knights boots a conversion goal on December 10. (ⒸSANKEI)

Wild Knights Showcase Authority with Rout of Eagles

The Saitama Wild Knights set the tone early, amassing 22 unanswered points in the first 28 minutes of play. Although the Eagles managed to respond with two tries and a conversion by halftime, the Wild Knights maintained their assertive style.

The second half saw the Wild Knights continuing their one-sided domination, scoring a try in the opening minute and adding four more to secure a resounding 52-12 victory. Rikiya Matsuda led all scorers with four goals and one penalty goal, accumulating a total of 11 points, while Lachlan Boshier contributed with two tries ― in celebration of his newborn son. 

The Wild Knights' performance highlighted their commanding presence on the field.

Wild Knights head coach Robbie Deans was ecstatic with the victory and great start to the season.

"I believe our opening match was fantastic. Despite the challenges of it being our initial game and the brief preparation time with Rugby World Cup players joining our team, we are happy with the result," Deans told reporters. "I communicated our focal points to the team, and I believe we executed them exceptionally well.

The coach added, "This season promises to be a challenging one, emphasizing the significance of the opening match. The team displayed remarkable continuity among its members, providing a strategic advantage. Although we faced some challenges towards the end after leading in the first half, I appreciate that we managed to elevate our performance standards in the second half."

A Loss to Learn From for the Eagles

Crestfallen but not deterred, Eagles captain Yusuke Kajimura reflected on the one-sided beating in a post-match interview.

"I sensed that playing in [an undisciplined] manner in a game like this would likely result in a loss," Kajimura said. "While our defense performed well, there was a lack of preparation in terms of attitude. Winning this season won't be easy, and I want the team to approach each game with a sense of urgency."


Author: Galileo Ferrari


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