JRLO Week 4 Preview: Steelers Vs Wild Knights

Clash of the Titans or Pitiful Mismatch?

What Happened Last Week?

Kobelco Kobe Steelers

A measure of redemption – certainly in terms of effort and urgency. It wasn’t perfect, but this was a different unit to the one that could do nothing right in Yokohama the previous week. The 5000-odd Noevir fans were treated to 4 tries, including a brace by Player of the Match Rakuhei Yamashita, and book-ended by efforts from an impressive Seokhwan Jang, and Shinsuke Iseki. Stand off Aaron Cruden added two conversions and a penalty goal, while the much improved defense limited the visitors from Funabashi to only two tries, added to by four penalty goals off the boot of Bernard Foley, and Kobe Steelers picked up their vital first win of 2022 by downing Kubota Spears 27-22.

Match Highlights

Saitama Wild Knights

The long awaited entrance of the reigning champion Wild Knights to JRLO ’22 resulted in a complete defensive stifling of a good Canon Eagles side, limiting them to a single penalty goal, and no tries. In attack there was evidence of understandable rust, but they were still potent enough to run in one first and two second half tries – from Dylan Riley, Hadleigh Parkes and Koki Takeyama respectively. Marika Koroibete menaced constantly, and Rikiya Matsuda was perfect from the tee, adding a penalty goal in either half in what turned out to be a frighteningly comfortable 27-3 victory for the hosts over the team that had put the Steelers to the sword just one week before.

Match Highlights

Preview and Squads

Defenses win games, and they win championships. The Wild Knights showed their defensive teeth in last week’s dousing of almost every fiery Eagles attack. No fewer than 4 goal-line efforts were successfully repelled (although the argument can be made that Canon were hasty and wasteful on three of those). In contrast, not much the Steelers had shown until last Saturday suggested they even understood the meaning of the word. That, at last, against Kubota the line and drift defenses were much improved, the kicks defended, the tackles made, and there seemed to be some co-operation between, and execution from, the players themselves, hinting that if further improvement are made this week Kobe might be able to stay with the visitors longer than I’m sure even the most positive Steelers fan hopes.

In April, 2021 these two behemoths could not be separated in a defensive, torrential-rain-drenched Top League Round 6 13-13 arm wrestle at Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium.

There are likely few who expect such a close contest this year when they meet again at the same venue for Week 4 of JRLO. (Explained further below. By the way, no rain expected in Kobe on Saturday for this matchup).

Rakuhei Yamashita walked away from the Spears game last week with a deserved Player of the Match award. Totally absent in the game against Canon, he was terrier-like around the Noevir turf against Kubota. As well as finding his wicked step to score twice, he was also quick and decisive in defense – securing a rare jackal – in a performance you could even liken to the Panasonic legend Kenki Fukuoka.
But, for my money, the greatest impact in the Spears game in comparison to the disastrous opening efforts was to be found in the center pairing. I have never hidden my opinion that a 12, 13 of Buckman and Lafaele is Kobe’s best option, and by some margin. Either one of these guys by themselves could have picked up Mikagehage’s POM award. Buckman was tireless in his line and defensive work, while Lafaele was key in both of Yamashita’s tries. The whole shape of Kobe’s line in both phases of the game due to these two was a massive upgrade, but it was not the only one.

The position of hooker saw an all-round improvement, too, with the return of Hirotaka Hirabara, and Aaron Cruden finally played a truly meaningful role in a game. Despite missing a couple of difficult conversions, he ran the attack much better than I have seen before, and kept tabs on his capable opposite number Foley in defense. Perhaps there were a few too many speculative/wasteful kicks for my liking, but one can’t underestimate the effect that his (and Lee’s) chargedown of Foley’s conversion 5 minutes from time had on the outcome. It totally halted the Spears’ momentum at a time they could have been firing themselves up for at least a game-tying penalty chance.

The Game Day 23s

Saitama Wild Knights

Holy Moly!

There should be rules against this!

This squad is ridiculous, and is a testament to the skills of Robbie Deans (and players’ eagerness to play for him).

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is simply a question of a big team buying a squad. By no means are Panasonic the richest club in this tournament (they’re not poor either!) but they have an academy program far ahead of any other team and boast a number of excellent home grown prospects (such as Fukui in the 23 jersey). You might compare them to, say, Manchester united in the EPL of the early 90’s; there was plenty of competition from other clubs with fat wallets, but their internal development program was just on a different level.

Let’s look more closely. The team is allowed to field 4 non-japanese players (categories ‘B’ and ‘C’ – a maximum of 3 can be ‘C’, or internationally capped foreign players) in their starting XV. These are Sunwolves veteran lock Mark Abbot (30, B), England’s George Kruis (31, C), Wales’ Hadleigh Parkes (34, C) and Australia’s Marika Koroibete (29, C). While Parkes may have ‘officially retired’ from test rugby, neither Kruis nor Koroibete would admit to doing as such. Indeed both aim to play for their national sides again. Compare this to Kobelco’s singular category C player Aaron Cruden (33). No argument could be made that he is anything but extremely unlikely to return to NZ test rugby. The Steelers’ only other category C player Ben Smith (35), himself long removed from his All Blacks best, abruptly left the team in December (for reasons undisclosed, surprise surprise). If nothing else this likely displays the disparity between the competence of the respective front offices. As attractive as the names Smith and Cruden appeared at the end of 2020, they were very much a decision made in the mold of the old amateur system, and were seemingly decisions made without thought to the new professional league that was rapidly approaching.

Then take a look at the premium category A players.

I’ll help.

Inagaki, Sakate, Gunter, Nunomaki, Uchida, Matsuda, Riley, Noguchi, Horie, Ai Valu, Fukui – the majority of whom still figure very prominently in the Japan test squad. Add to this the category B players, Lachlan Boshier and Vince Aso plus the talented players I haven’t highlighted and you can see that this squad is FAR AND AWAY the overwhelming favorites to claim the title of the innaugural JRLO Championship.

Foreign press may like to bill this as (Robbie) Deans Vs (Wayne) Smith, but it is not. Not by any means. Deans is a full time hands on presence in Saitama, while Smith has been spending less and less time in Japan since the 2020 season. Kobe might claim that he is present and actively involved through Zoom, or whatever, but their difference in his absence is immeasurably huge. Advantage Wild Knights. As if another were needed.

Kobelco Kobe Steelers

Steelers 23

Isileli Nakajima and Rakuhei Yamashita are likely to trot out together at the front of the line at (that stadium I refuse to name) on Saturday, as both will gain their 50th caps for the Steelers. Congrats, boys!

At the other end of the career spectrum, Kosuke Naka will surely be feeling the pressure as he gains his first cap in the 22 jersey in the company of Aaron Cruden, Rikiya Matsuda, and Vince Aso!

Kobe Steelers have, for once, aimed for a bit of consistency (cohesion?) in their week 4 lineup. 14 of last week’s starters line up in identical positions this week. The only change is Richard Buckman who likely can’t go after getting injured against Kubota. He is replaced by exciting young prospect Seungsin Lee at 12. Although this is Lee’s natural and preferred position I don’t see this ending anything but badly for him and the team, which is a shame. This game requires a predominantly defensive (and experienced) 12, which Buckman is. While Lee is quick, decisive and exciting, he isn’t the defensive colossus Buckman has consistently been for Kobe. Sorry Lee, I’m a fan but this ain’t your game. It will be a huge experience though. Prove me wrong. Please!

The effect of a relatively weakened center pairing might be disastrous for Kobe, as Koroibete, Riley, and Parkes could tear open a very turgid-when-turned Moeakiola, Cruden, and Yamanaka. It will likely appear that the defenders are wading through treacle as the wave of blue inundates the spaces behind the Kobe line defense. Dont expect last weeks POM, Rakuhei Yamashita to enjoy much left wing success either against an equally quick and experienced Takeyama.

The only area Kobe enjoys relative parity is in the front rows and their replacements. This was not evident in the first 2 games, but they showed significant improvement in week 3 and should put up a good contest in this one. But a scrum is nothing more than the sum of its parts, and the Wild Knights enjoy a clear advantage 5 through 8, at least on paper, and also on the benches. Kobe spent it’s third contest trying to present some semblance of being able to play the rugby they are potentially capable of. Saiatama, meanwhile, were not that far off great in their very first run out of the season.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

So what can we expect from this matchup? I think primarily the clash in the midfield/centers will be key. Parkes and Riley Vs. Lee and Lafaele is an exciting prospect, with both stand offs being very capable of exploiting any weakness in the opponent’s midfield. First up tackling will be absolutely vital, as any missed tackles will suck up extra defenders and expose the spaces that either team can attack to devastating and surgical effect. Similarly the breakdown. With both teams reliant on tempo to make best of their attacking weapons, any means of successfully slowing down the other’s ball may also be key to deciding the winner. But that needs to be done accurately. Kobe Steelers are by far the most penalized team in Division 1 so far (41) and have allowed significantly more points scored, too (101). Gee, I wonder if there might not be a connection there?

The Wild Knights are a powerful side but they are smart too, and play almost a test-rugby-like game. They can be very happy to take advantage of your indiscipline to slowly build the score from Matsuda’s boot, then carve you up with highlight-reel footy when you get unstuck trying to chase the game. This might be how the game pans out. Kobe have shown that hurt honor and pride, plus some likely fireworks up the a** from the coaches can make a big difference in a week. They know the challenge that Saturday poses to their shaky season.

Don’t be too surprised if there’s a surprise or two in this one.

Hahahahaha. Sorry about that. That was clearly the heart writing that last sentence.

Using the head however, I have to admit that I expect the visitors to eviscerate the home side by a margin of at least 4 tries. It could be significantly more, but it should at any rate be a 5 point bonus win for the Wild Knights.

I need to wash my hands and gargle.

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