Sunday, October 25, 2009

Japan Top League Rugby Doubleheader - October 24, 2009

While watching the Junior Rugby World Championship a few months back, I picked up a schedule for Japan's rugby league, known as the Top League. There are 14 teams in this league, and they often play doubleheaders when two local teams are at home at the same time. Two games are always better than one, so I made note of a Saturday in October when Chichibunomiya Rugby Ground would host back-to-back matches and patiently waited for the day to arrive.

It was chilly in Tokyo yesterday, but this didn't stop about 5,000 rugby fans from making their way to the stadium to catch the Ricoh Black Rams hosting the Kyuden Voltex, followed by the Suntory Sungoliath taking on the Kubota Spears. As with most sports in Japan, teams are named after their corporate sponsors, so it's not immediately clear where they are based. Both Ricoh and Suntory are from Tokyo though, and were therefore the home teams.

I arrived about an hour before kickoff and made my way to the ticket window. It was only 1,500 yen for a ticket that allows you to sit most anywhere. There was assigned seating for 3,000 yen and special assigned seating for 4,000 yen, but I didn't see the point of spending the extra dough. Turns out the free seating is in the uncovered backstand, which is where I prefer to sit anyway, as you can get a seat right at field level.

The empty stadium an hour before kickoff

As I entered, I was handed a scoresheet with lineups for both games and was intrigued to find several world class players from the southern hemisphere playing on all sides. In particular, Stephen Larkham was the fullback for Ricoh, while George Gregan was the scrum half for Suntory.

George Gregan

As I took my seat next to the 22m line, I noticed that you can see the scoreboard at Jingu Stadium next door. There was another Tokyo Big 6 doubleheader happening at the same time, and I was able to follow the Meiji-Hosei game, which had just started. (Meiji won 5-1 with a 4-run ninth).

The Meiji-Hosei game was 14 minutes old and Hosei led 1-0

Game 1 - Kyuden Voltex 17 at Ricoh Black Rams 41

Kyuden is short for Kyushu Denryoku, the electric power company on the southern island of Kyushu. The Voltex were lying last in the table with no wins in their 6 games and averaging about 40 points against. Ricoh was 2-4, a decent record after winning promotion from the Japan East League. I was sitting in the first row near the 22 m line, which turned out to be right in the middle of the Voltex cheering section. Or I should say the 10 or so guys that came up from Fukuoka to cheer their team. They distributed flags to everyone around them and coached them on their cheers. Which weren't very difficult. The first cheer was "Go Go Kyuden" repeated 3 times. The second cheer was "Ike Ike Kyuden" (which means "Go Go Kyuden") repeated 3 times. That was it.

There weren't any real warmups before the game started; the Voltex kicker was practicing a few kicks but that was about it. The players then came out for the traditional pre-game pictures, and then the Voltex players ran over to their supporters and tossed T-shirts into the crowd. It seems like this is a tradition as the same thing happened in the following game.

Voltex got off to a quick start when Tim Atkinson ran in a try off a lineout just 2 minutes in. With the Josh Mann-Rea conversion it was 7-0 Kyuden, who extended their lead to 10 points with a penalty goal. Before the kick, the cheering section prepared their flags again and when the ball sailed through, they waved them heartily. It was certainly unusual for the Voltex to have a lead. The teams traded tries in the next 10 minutes and Voltex had a 17-7 advantage after just 20 minutes.

Voltex close to the goalline

Unfortunately there were still 60 minutes to play, and the rest of the game was controlled by Ricoh. After an offside penalty resulted in an easy 3 points for the Black Rams, Kyuden's Kota Kurogi was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes after tripping Larkham. Ricoh's kicker, Yoshimitsu Kawano, made the penalty to narrow the gap to 4 points.

Ricoh didn't let the advantage escape, and man-of-the-match Kenichi Yokoyama scored the go-ahead try. Mann-Rea's conversion bounced in off the goal post, and Ricoh had the lead 20-17.

A scrum

Kyuden seemed deflated by the sudden turnaround, and they gave up a weak try on the halftime horn as their defense was incapable of tackling Ryo Kanazawa. From where I sat, it seemed like the defense had opened a huge gap and Kanazawa just scampered through untouched. After another conversion from Mann-Rea, it was 27-17 Ricoh at the break.

It was clear from the first half that Ricoh was the faster team and they were able to exploit the gaping holes that appeared in Kyuden's defense. Things were no different early in the second half as Kanazawa scored his third try of the game just 3 minutes after the interval, and the game was essentially over, with the Black Rams leading 34-17.

The Kyuden cheering section were still trying to inspire their team, shouting one of their two cheers during every stoppage, but their team was simply overmatched. Ricoh added a 5th try when Yusuke Nagae, a 5'7, 230 lb prop, grabbed the ball out of a scrum and scurried into the end zone. The conversion made it 41-17 and the last 20 minutes were devoid of much action, although Ricoh did attempt some long-range goals in rugby's equivalent of garbage time.

The Black Rams force the issue

After the game, the Kyuden supporters looked quite glum as their team seems destined for relegation. The players came over to thank the fans for their support and received some light applause, but the looks on their faces told it all. Another 40 points given up and they had a long flight back to Fukuoka.

Captain Masahiro Yoshinaga apologizes for his team's terrible defense

Game 2 - Kubota Spears 16 at Suntory Sungoliath 21

Suntory ranked 2nd in the league with 5 wins and a draw from their 6 matches, while Kubota were a reasonable 4-2. It promised to be a better game than the one previous and it wasn't disappointing. This time I was sitting in the Kubota cheering section, but they didn't have any flags, just two guys who would occasionally shout "Go Go Kubota" or something similar. Not a lot of creativity on display here. As Suntory is a beer maker, I would cheer for them quietly.

In the 4th minute, Japanese national player Hirotoki Onozawa followed up a kick and ran the ball in to open the scoring. The conversion was missed but Suntory were up 5-0. The Spears replied with a lucky play. When Suntory blocked a kick, the ball was quickly recovered by Kubota, who managed to get it to lock Kota Suzuki who showed off surprising speed to tie the game. The successful conversion gave Kubota a 7-5 lead.

The next 15 minutes saw both teams struggling to score, and there were a lot of stoppages and penalties awarded. I had trouble following the play because the referee's jersey was nearly the same colour as those sported by the Spears. I couldn't see many of the penalties, but Suntory had two penalty goals to Kubota's 1, and led 11-10 with a minute to go in the half. That's when the Spears' Shane Drahm booted a great drop goal to restore his side's two-point lead just as the half ended.

I decided to move seats at halftime, to try to get a different view of the game. As the second half began, the referee came out wearing a bright pink shirt - it was clear that I wasn't the only one who had difficulty following the play.


The second half was characterized by strong defense on both sides. In particular, the Spears were able to withstand multiple challenges at their goalline. It seemed like Suntory held the ball for most of the first 10 minutes and constantly pushed Kubota's defense. Several penalties were awarded, but Suntory elected to kick out of bounds for field position, rather than take the 3 points. But Kubota's backline held and eventually got the ball out of trouble.

The Sungoliath are not able to score here - note the referee's garish garb

On Sungoliath's next trip down though, the Spears were not as fortunate as Michael Broadhurst was sin binned for repeated infringments. Suntory kept up the pressure with the advantage, but were still unable to cross the line. I was impressed with Kubota's ability to stand strong while one man down, but with just a minute or so left in the suspension, Suntory's Shinya Makabe took the ball and eluded two defenders, crossing the line to give his team an 18-13 lead after the conversion.

Makabe with the winning try

Despite Kubota having a good ability to stretch the field with some great passing, they could not break down the Suntory defense. Suntory eventually added another penalty goal to make the game 21-13 with 6 minutes left. Things looked over, but Kubota did not give up, adding their own penalty to reduce the deficit to 5 with just two minutes left.

The Spears regained possession in the last minute and tried a daring play, kicking the ball down the sideline in the hopes that a player in front could pick it up and run it in for the try. But Suntory's Wayne Van Heerden grabbed the ball after a tricky bounce and crawled toward the sideline in a desperate attempt to get out of bounds and end the game. I couldn't see clearly what was happening as it was at the other end of the field but apparently he made it out as the referee blew the whistle. Suntory was victorious 21-16 but missed out on bonus points by only scoring two tries.

Overall Thoughts

These games transpired as expected. The Voltex defense was porous and they were blown out, while Suntory won a close affair. In both games, it was a 10-minute suspension that had a large part to play in the final outcome.

I enjoyed watching two games and getting a different feeling for each team's strategy and system. It's great to be able to sit so close to the action without a screen disrupting the view, which is my chief complaint about baseball here. There were only about 5,000 fans in attendance, which shows that the Top League still has a way to go to when compared to the J League. But with the 2019 Rugby World Cup coming to Japan, as well as rugby now an Olympic sport, the Top League should be increasing in popularity. If you live in Japan, I urge you to check out a game near you (the schedule is only in Japanese though).

A good crowd

Wallabies Watched

Next week sees the Australian and New Zealand national teams doing battle in the 4th test of the 2009 Bledisoe Cup. It's a meaningless match as the Kiwi's have retained the trophy with 3 wins so far, but it's a great way to give fans in Japan a chance to see two world-class teams. Tickets are overpriced, so I won't be going, but I mention it here as the Wallabies were in attendance yesterday. After the game, they were signing autographs and fraternizing with the fans, which was great to see. I don't know many of the players by sight as I can't watch many of their games, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Hope that they can put up a good fight next week and give Japanese rugby fans a game to remember.

Next up

I was hoping to go to see Kawasaki (now in first place in the J League) today hosting Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but the weather is not promising. Next week I've planned a return trip to Omiya to see an Emperor's cup game in Nack 5 Stadium. Then it's the Nabisco Cup on November 3rd (although tickets are sold out, so it's unlikely I'll get in), the AFC Champions League Final on November 7 (Nagoya lost 6-2 to Al Ittihad in their first leg, so it's doubtful they'll make it). After that, I'll try to see a couple more Frontale games as the season winds down. As always, updates will be posted here.



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