Steelers lose heartbreaker at the death to champion Wild Knights, dropping to perilous 1-3 JRLO 2022 start.
Face a Green Rockets side in Chiba who are equally concerned with stopping their own slide.
What Happened Last Week?
Kobelco Kobe Steelers
A rip-storming, edge-of-your-seat, 78-point bonanza against JRLO favorites Saitama Wild Knights. The Steelers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead on back to back intercept tries by Aaron Cruden and Atsushi Hiwasa.
Wild Knight first half tries from Takeyama (who scored 2 on the day) and Riley were both soon answered by 5-pointers from captain Daiki Hashimoto and Ryohei Yamanaka, giving Kobe a 16-point 31-15 lead at very near the hour mark.
Yet you always felt the Saitama visitors were never far away from a comeback in this one, and as the substitutions began, the Wild Knights’ clear depth advantage slowly began to tell – particularly with the introductions of Shota Horie and Vince Aso at 57 mins and 66mins respectively. Aaron Cruden, perfect from the tee, added 2PG’s in a vain attempt to keep the Steelers’ nose in front, but it wasn’t enought as Marika Koroibete scored a quick brace and, with the clock showing zeros, Player of the Match Horie touched down at the back of a driving maul to steal the points in a 37-41 thriller before 5198 in Kobe. Much more on this in Analysis below!
NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu
The Green Rockets struggled to contain the power of the Kubota Spears forwards in a disappointingly attended, (2,379) lopsided loss at Edogawa Stadium. Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx scored a hat trick of tries for the Spears, while ex Wallaby Bernard Foley accounted for 19 (1T, 7G) of the Spears’ 9-try, 59 point haul. Ash Dixon scored his first try for the Green Rockets just before the half, and they scored three other tries (including one from ex Kobe Steeler, Kentaro Kodama) but the Tokatsu side were never really in this one and lost both halves conclusively – conceding 13 penalties along the way. Final score 59-26.
The Game Day 23’s
Kobelco Kobe Steelers
The return of lock, J.D Schickerling (who will actually play at 4) shifts the in-form Seokhwan Jang to #8, which in turn sends Shohei Maekawa to the 19 jersey.
Tighthead Hiroshi Yamashita doesn’t feature this week, so Gu starts and there’s a potential first cap for Kosuke Oike.
Ryohei Yamanaka, also inactive this week, is replaced by Shinsuke Iseki.
Kyungmun Wang takes the 16 jersey from Matsuoka, with Hirabara starting again.
Richard Buckman has recovered from his head knock to rejoin Tim Lafaele in the centers, while Seungsin Lee is at starting pivot, (Cruden rested).
NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu
Kentaro Kodama takes on his old Steelers teammates on the left wing, where he matches up against Ataata Moeakiola in an interesting test of speed vs power. Both could potentially cause issues for the other.
Update: Kodama was moved to 13 after the 23s were published.
I must never again be tempted to look at a previous week’s performance, or how an opponent matched up against a side you have also played, in these analyses. Seeing the way Canon had steamrolled Kobe but had then been shut down so completely by Saitama the following week made predicting what happened in the Steelers-Wild Knights game very difficult – if not impossible. To my credit, I had semi-warned that there could be a surprise, but in the end chose to predict a bonus point win for the visitors. Ooops!
The official Steelers webpage once again termed the loss ‘frustrating’ and this time I think I would concur. I don’t mean to imply that we deserved to win, but perhaps in the end we should have. (You will see why later)
No-one could have predicted the pair of intercept tries gifted to the Steelers early in the contest, but instead of luck, the first was much more likely the good work of a Kobe analyst that had identified Saitama’s penchant for passing inside to Marika Koroibete, which Aaron Cruden was ready for. (This very play was used later to devastating effect, however – see below) Interestingly the second of these intercepts was also from a pass intended for Koroibete – but more a result of Hiwasa’s quick reactions during broken play.
So let’s take a dive into The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of it all last week.
First the Good. And there was much of it. In no particular order:
- Aaron Cruden played his best game for Kobe so far this season, scoring 22 points, and would likely have been POM had Kobe won. But he wasn’t the only player putting in a season-best effort. Moeakiola and Yamanaka could also claim that honor – the three of them patrolling the backfield and generally dealing with the Saitama kicking game well. They were not perfect but all showed a big improvement. Particularly Yamanaka. I have not really spoken highly of his play so far this season. This is largely because he has been terrible. But not against Panasonic. As I have mentioned many times, a confidence player like him can have great games if he makes great starts. Otherwise he disappears into his shell. Hiwasa also showed a big step up on previous weeks (Kobe are generally beginning to gel better all-round).
- If Cruden hadn’t been POM, I would have chosen Seokhwan Jang. The effort of he and Kotaki in the second row was brilliant. In fact the whole pack were excellent and might have outperformed their star-filled opponents. Takara Imamura worked tirelessly at the breakdown, as did ex captain Shohei Maekawa and current captain Hashimoto. Although somewhat of a blunt instrument and not particularly favored in recent team sheets, Maekawa certainly has the steel (and the respect of the players) to fire up the effort of the forwards in general. They protected their own scrum and lineout and committed fewer penalties than the visitors, too.
OK, perhaps ‘bad’ is too strong a term. The ‘not so good‘ then.
- For the greater part of the 80 minutes he was on the field, Seungsin Lee played a really good game in the centers alongside Timothy Lafaele. It was in the centers, however, that two Wild Knights tries were created, and conceded. The second no fault of either Lee nor Lafaele (see ‘The Ugly’ below) but the first perhaps was. Lee is a quick player, full of eager, youthful exuberance. In defense he likes to come off the line like a terrier chasing a ball. The problem is that against a quality center pairing like Parkes and Riley – likely the best center pairing in Japanese rugby – such eagerness can be taken advantage of. It’s not even very rare that Parkes will chip over the line in a game to his charging partner, particularly near the goal line. The analysts must have known this, but because Lee was charging out of the line as usual, it made the ex Wales international’s job that much easier to find Riley with his boot for an easy 5-pointer. In fairness, even if Lee had paused to read, or had recognized, the Wild Knights pair’s intentions, there’s no obvious guarantee he could have prevented Riley scoring, but at least he might have. I’m a fan and he is improving all the time, but he has been stranded too far up field on occasion this season when the Steelers don’t have the ball.
- First, Ataata Moeakiola had his best game of the season. He has played quite well now for two straight games in the 14 jersey. But it’s always going to create difficulties for Kobe if his job is to protect the outside channels against quick left wings. Marika Koroibete is a great player, but for his second try Moeakiola had an open field one-on-one tackle opportunity. Being a big unit in a world governed by physical laws, however, means he isn’t the fastest to react, and is turned easily. Falling under his own mass and fatigue he didn’t manage to even touch the Wallaby. Had a wing like Iseki or Yamashita been in the same position, there is no guarantee of stopping Korobete’s bullish power, but at least they would have gotten hands on him.
- It was expected, but it just did not seem that the Kobe replacements could bring the same level of power and passion to their positions as the starters did. That comment might seem unfair against such a strong Saitama bench, but in reality the first XV did an amazing job despite being outmatched name for name on the team sheets. Rugby is an 80 minute game played by the full 23. Teams that can’t do that generally don’t win too many games.
It is not my intention to rag on officiating too much, although it remains one of the main elephants in the room regarding the quality of a product that JRFU/JRLO claims to be the primary rugby competition in the world – or at least potentially.
However, I want to outline two instances during this game where foul play was not recognized either by the officials on the pitch (often challenging) nor the TMO, who tend to be conspicuously quiet (some might say ‘thankfully’) in Japanese rugby. Both resulted in tries for the visitors and both obviously impacted the result of the contest, so they are at least worth mentioning.
The first came during Takeyama’s second try. Here is the clip, shared quite widely on social media. It seems to show a very sharp Wild Knights attacking sign play, and some very poor defending from the Steelers:
By the way, this is actually the same play that Aaron Cruden sniffed out for the opening try of the game, but this time off a line out, not a scrum.
What is happening here that creates the try is that decoy runner, Dylan Riley makes contact with Kobe’s 12, Lee, and impedes him, so that when Koroibete receives the inside pass (which is, I think, forward! ) there is a gaping hole between Lee and a drifting Lafaele (13). Lee miraculously recovers to make a tap tackle, but by then Kobe FB Yamanaka has had to commit to Koroibete, leaving Takeyama gloriously alone on the outside for the easy score, and fans scratching their heads wondering why he was so open.
This is not sour grapes, but mere fact. Neither the illegal contact on Lee nor the forward pass were noticed by the sleeping TMO. Neither is it okay to brush it off as ‘accidental.’ It’s the action which draws the penalty, regardless of intent.
One also hopes this is not coached! It would be ironic and unsurprising if it were, though. In 2013 Robbie Deans’ Wallabies were soundly beaten by a British and Irish Lions squad that were accused of making use of the same tactic. Here, IRB Hall of Fame coach Bob Dwyer talks about Warren Gatland’s 2013 Lions:
“When they run decoy plays, the decoy runner invariably makes contact with the defender. He doesn’t smash him out of the way or anything so blatant, but it has the effect of impeding the defence.”
The second instance came during the final, game winning, try. Let’s look at the clip:
What you can see is Wild Knights hooker Shota Horie detaching from his bind at around the 19 second mark. Obviously ball carriers do detach as they cross the line to score, but what Horie does is run into the back of his teammates, (unbound) and then score. This is accidental obstruction. No ifs. No buts. (check the Ireland Wales game at 68:40 for GOOD refereeing!)
What is particularly frustrating about this non-call from the officials is that it is a basic infringement that is actively looked-for during every maul. As a scoring play, you would at least have expected the TMO to check all aspects of it, not least whether the ball carrier maintained their bind or not.
Despite these two lamentably missed calls, I was not at all disappointed with the Kobe performance, nor that we lost so agonizingly at the hooter. No remotes were thrown, no profanity hurled. On the contrary, with a far from full-strength team (at least on paper) we pushed the 2021 – and likely 2022 – champion Saitama Wild Knights to their very limits. We will return stronger. Despite being 1-3 now, we will be competitive in this league yet, and it will be due to this game.
So what can we expect from the Steelers – Green Rockets match up? Well, obviously it would be unwise to predict a Steelers blowout based simply on what happened to either team last week. Kobe beat Kubota. Kubota destroyed NEC. Therefore Kobe will obliterate NEC. Not necessarily.
One might have fallen into the same trap in last year’s opener, but Dave Dillon’s old team pushed Kobe to the wire in a much-closer-than-expected 13-try, 47-38 nail-biter instead. They had Saracen’s Alex Goode at 10 that day and scored in the opening minute. (Are Kobe beginning a habit of starting slowly?)
I guess few are imagining anything but a Steelers victory, though. Despite a host of well known names, such as Ash Dixon, Jake Ball, Fumiaki Tanaka, and Lomano Lemeki it just hasn’t really begun to gel for the Green Rockets yet. Obviously they have had to deal with their pre-season cocaine scandal, and have only played twice and against good teams – their season so far interupted by (and benefitted from) Covid cancellations, but week 5 doesn’t get any easier for them and they face a Kobe side that also can scarcely aford to lose again.