Sunday, January 10, 2010

Japan Top League Rugby Doubleheader - Match Day 13 - January 9, 2010


The Top League Rugby season consists of 13 match days, as each of the 14 teams plays each other just once. Yesterday was the final match day as teams fought for playoff positioning. Once again, Tokyo's Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium was the site of a doubleheader, and with the weather crisp and clear, it was a good chance to start of another year of sports watching.

Game 1 - NEC Green Rockets 29 Yahama Jublio 17

The first game featured a couple of teams in the middle of the table. NEC was in 11th spot and was in danger of having to play in the promotion/relegation playoffs, in which the 11th and 12th placed teams play teams from the Top Challenge Series. It's quite a drop from the Top League, so NEC had some real motivation. Yamaha was in 6th place and would be in the wild card playoffs regardless of the result. I'll talk more about the playoffs below.

Yamaha Jublio wins a line out

It didn't take long for NEC to prove their will as they scored off a rolling maul just 90 seconds into the match. The conversion goal was missed, keeping the score at 5-0. Yamaha tightened things up after that, and there were about 30 minutes of back and forth rugby with no scoring. The turning point came when Jublio's Yoshikazu Kushida was sent to the sin bin (a 10-minute penalty) for stamping. With the man advantage, NEC was able to stretch the Jublio defense and scored two tries in the next 6 minutes, both on wide runs. With the two conversions, the Green Rockets had a comfortable 19-0 lead at halftime.

A rolling maul

An early penalty goal in the second half by NEC made it 22-0 before Yamaha finally got on the scoreboard. They managed two tries of their own in a span of 5 minutes, but neither was converted, leaving the score at 22-10. Yamaha continued to press though, but a turnover near the NEC goal line was their undoing. It ended up in the arms of Taro Kenjo who sped down the sideline for the try, his second of the match. The conversion made it 29-10, and although Jublio managed a late try of their own, it was not nearly enough as the Green Rockets won 29-17. With the win, NEC moved into 10th to avoid the possibility of relegation, while Yamaha slid to 9th with the defeat.

The highlight of the game might have been Rory Duncan, a 6'4, 250lb behemoth playing for Yamaha just running over Takaharu Yamamoto, a 5'10 hooker for the Green Rockets. Yamamoto was slow to get up and staggered for some time after that play, wondering what had happened. It was a great run by Duncan, who later had a chance to score a try but dropped the ball at the try line, as shown in the two photos below.

Duncan races for the try line but....

drops the ball on some determined NEC tackling

Game 2 - Sanyo Wild Knights 16 Suntory Sungolaith 16

The second game was the highlight of the season. Sanyo and Suntory are the best squads in the league with both coming in undefeated after 12 rounds. Sanyo, who are the defending All-Japan champions, were a perfect 12-0, while Suntory had 11 wins in a row after opening the season with a draw.

Suntory's George Gregan looks serious before the game

Sanyo drew first blood when Suntory winger Yasunori Nagatomo dropped a kick at his try line just over 2 minutes in. The ball fell into the arms of Wild Knights fullback Atsushi Tanabe, who dove across the line for the easy try. Tanabe also kicked the conversion and it was 7-0 early. The three photos below show Nagatomo dropping the ball and Tanabe reaching for it and then diving over. It was probably the most exciting play of the game.





Why was it the most exciting play? Because these two teams were strong on defense. The match turned in a battle for field position, as both teams would kick back and forth for extended periods, hoping to force the opposition into a mistake. Neither defense failed, although there were some penalties conceded. Each side managed two penalty goals which allowed Sanyo to maintain their 7-point cushion at halftime.

In the second half, it was more of the same, kick, kick, kick. Neither defense yielded much on the ground, and it wasn't until the 10 minute mark that Sanyo's Justin Ives was sin binned for a dangerous tackle. Suntory made quick use of the man advantage with Kensuke Hatakeyama lunging desperately over the line to knot the game at 13. But the Sungoliath couldn't add to their total while Ives sat on the sideline, and we entered the last 20 minutes all tied up.

The opening kick

The defensive battle continued and there were few real chances. When Sanyo committed another infraction near midfield with about 15 minutes left, Suntory's kicker Tusi Pisi decided to try a long penalty goal, much to the astonishment of the crowd. But Pisi knew what he was capable of, and knocked it through to give the Sungoliath their first lead of the game at 16-13. But Sanyo was not to be denied - they pushed toward the line and drew a penalty with 5 minutes to go. Knowing that a draw would give them the league title, Tanabe booted an easy penalty goal to make it 16 all - Tanabe himself accounting for all of Sanyo's points.

The last 5 minutes were academic - Sanyo hadn't given up a try at full strength, and were content with the tie, so both teams just kept kicking the ball. When the final siren sounded, Sanyo's players raised their arms in triumph, even though their season was no longer perfect.

This game was an exercise in rugby tactics between two evenly matched teams. Very little field play and a lot of kicking for position. Both defenses were punishing and gave little ground. I suspect we'll see these two sides playing again in the final in three weeks time.

Thoughts

It was a great crowd today with over 12,000 on hand for the second game. A lot of youngsters and families too, which bodes well for rugby's future in Japan. At 1,500 yen for a seat one row from the field for two games, it is certainly a great deal.

The one thing that used to bother me about rugby is the large number of penalties and the fact that a penalty often leads to 3 easy points. Considering a try is only worth 5 points, I thought that the scoring for a penalty was a bit high. But looking at the stats for the top leagues, I see that tries happen nearly 3 times as often, because so many games are between mismatched teams. It is only when defenses are as strong as they were in the Suntory-Sanyo game that penalty goals become critical - in fact, they may be the only way to score. So it makes sense that they are worth more than a conversion.

The Playoffs

The Top League has two playoff tournaments played concurrently. The first features the top 4 teams in a normal semi-final/final knockout tournament with the winner being declared league champion and awarded the Microsoft Cup . The semi-finals are on January 24th with one game in Tokyo and one in Osaka, while the final is on January 31st in Tokyo.

The other playoff is known as the Wild Card Tournament and includes the teams that finished 5th through 10th. In the first round, the 7th-place squad takes on 10th-place, while the 8-9 teams battle. The winners then face the 5th and 6th place teams. The two sides that win these games gain a berth in the All-Japan Football Rugby Championship, described below. The semi-finals are on January 16th in Osaka and the finals are on January 23rd in Tokyo.

There are also two promotion/relegation games, where the 11th and 12th-place teams play one game against regional clubs that have done well in the Top Challenge Series, which seems to be a series featuring regional clubs. The winners of each game are in the Top League for the following season. These games are on February 13th in a venue to be determined.

For those readers who remember my previous Top League Rugby games back in October, I saw Kyuden Voltex lose their 7th in a row. Sadly for them, they ran the table, going 0-13 to be relegated to rugby limbo, along with the Honda Heat, who went 1-12. I'm not yet sure which Top Challenge teams will take their place, there are 3 weeks of Top Challenge games from January 16th to 30th and I think the top two teams will gain promotion.

All-Japan Football Rugby Championship

Although the Top League season ends with the Microsoft Cup, there is yet another tournament that decides the top rugby team in the nation. Known as The All-Japan Football Rugby Championship, it features the best 4 Top League teams, the 2 winners of the Wild Card tournament, 2 top university teams, a club champion, and the winner of the Top Challenge Series. The best Top League teams automatically (Suntory and Sanyo) advance to the semi-finals, while the other 8 squads battle for the other two semi-final spots. The games are held on weekends in February in various locations, including doubleheaders in Tokyo on February 7th and 14th, so I'll probably check out one day of that action as well.

Next Up

I'm off to Atlanta on Thursday! Once the trip begins, I'll be watching 16 events in 17 days in Atlanta, Nashville, Tampa, Miami, and Orlando. The weather there is quite cold now, so here's hoping that it warms up by the time I arrive. Of course, this blog will be busy with posts of each game and city, so follow along!

Best,

Sean

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