Steelers travel to Chichibu for a huge matchup in rare JRLO Friday night match, looking for a vital win to salvage season.
What happened last week?
Kobelco Kobe Steelers
Crickets. Nothing. Kobe have forfeited 2 matches in a row due to positive PCR tests in camp, losing a potential 10 points in the process. The Steelers haven’t played a match since February 6th.
Serious questions were asked of Sungoliath’s potent points scoring machine, and they were found to be lacking against a deep and well balanced Saitama squad, eventually losing 34-17. The Wild Knights mostly smothered Damian McKenzie, Samu Kerevi and the Sungoliath backs, whilst wearing down their opponent’s defense with their own high octane attacks. Ordinarily Suntory could rely on a lot of favorable refereeing decisions to help them but not against the reigning champion Wild Knights, who also tend to get the benefit of any doubt from Japanese officiating crews.
I wonder how Sungoliath will be viewing this game. It’s game 2 of a tough three-game stretch for them (Wild Knights – Steelers – Spears) and it’s not inconceivable that they could lose all three.
On one hand, I guess they will firstly be very happy to be meeting a Kobe side with no Dan Carter. In the three most recent league matchups – dating back to September 2018 – the GOAT had the measure of Suntory, guiding them to three epic victories including one on his Top League debut, and of course the 55-5 drubbing in the 2018/19 Top League final to secure Kobe it’s first title in 15 years. (Scroll to the bottom to enjoy all three delicious wins! Kobe also defeated Suntory without Carter in a Cup playoff game in August 2019)
That Suntory have not beaten Kobe in over 4 years is bound to be a niggling insult to their team pride in the build up to this Friday night.
On the other however, sitting comfortably in second on 28 points with 6 wins from 7 games, I don’t think this pragmatically represents a must-win game for them. Certainly not in the way it does for the 2-5 Steelers. Sungoliath could easily afford to drop this game and pick up a whole slew of victories against lesser teams on it’s assured path to a place in the final 4.
Whether for this reason or not, they have given Hendrix Tui, one of their best players in recent weeks, a week off and are starting their other primary lock, Hockings, from the bench. They are therefore definitely surrendering an advantage to Kobe in the second row, where Kotaki, Schickerling and Cowley Tuioti are a stronger trio than Tsuji, Kobayashi and Hockings.
I also wonder whether a long rest is helpful or harmful to Kobe. This will be their first real rugby for a month, meaning that while each player should be fit and well rested they might be rusty compared with the Suntory players who are only 6 days on from a tough battle against Wild Knights. The Suntory front row of Ishihara, Horikoshi and Kakinaga is unchanged from that Panasonic game and they must be still feeling the effects from that physical battle, though. I think this gives the advantage to Kobe front three (Nakajima, Hirabara, Yamamoto) at scrum time.
Kobe advantage through the tight 5 then? Perhaps.
In the loosies, I think you have to give the advanatge at the breakdown to Suntory. Naoki Ozawa and Sean McMahon are two accomplished fetchers and secure a lot of turnover ball, while Kobe really do not have any known ball hawks. The Steelers support players will need to be quick and precise in their cleanouts to prevent a lot of penalties going to a Suntory side that always get the favor of the referee’s whistle anyway. McMahon in particuler, by the way, often tends to go in straight off feet I feel – grounding his hands past the ball then coming back onto it. Against Panasonic, the referee did not reward this, and Kobe will be hoping the referee for this week’s matchup will not either. In any case, he will have a long day against Seokhwan Jang at #8 – who has probably been the Steelers best player so far this season. (Incidentally, Go Maeda will finally get his first ever start from Kobe after missing his previous chance when the game versus Toyota was cancelled)
*No Tevita Tatafu yet for Suntory as he finishes his 4 game suspension this week for dangerous play against Black Rams in week 4.
At 9 and 10, Kobe’s gameday captain Atsushi Hiwasa and Aaron Cruden (playing his best rugby since arriving in Japan) surely have an edge over Naoki Saito and Hikaru Tamura. It’s obvious that Tamura will be desperate to get the ball as often as possible to either Samu Kerevi (watch for a lot of inside crash ball) or to Damien McKenzie, so it’s up to Cruden and the Steelers to see how they can deal with that.
Which brings us to the key matchups of the game.
Although wing Marika Koroibete was Player of the Match last week, the real reason Panasonic won was the work of Parkes and Riley in the centers, and particularly of Yamasawa at full back. Kobe’s Buckman, Lafaele and Yamanaka will have to play at least as well if they are to nullify the very potent attacking threats of Kerevi and McKenzie. Buckman is one of the better defensive 12s in the league and Lafaele has plenty of top level experience. This 12, 13 combination is easily Kobe’s best option. But it is with Yamanaka that the biggest question mark lies. I don’t mean to constantly single out this player as a weak link, but he is definitely an inconsistent link. There are games when he can marshal the back line with solid tackling and booming, line-clearing kicking, but there are games when he can be hopelessly positioned, outpaced, and outplayed, falling off tackles and fumbling away attacking chances. It will be his job to counter Damien McKenzie, who will both run at Kobe and kick over their defensive line. And often.
As simplistic as it seems, if Yamanaka has a good game, Kobe will win. If not, Sungoliath will.
Yamanaka’s overall game can generally be predicted by the first few things he does in a match, so I hope the Steelers coaches will not wait too long to bring on Shinsuke Iseki to replace him if things don’t start well. Personally I think Lee, who starts at 22 and will likely come on for Cruden at some point, would not be a bad choice at full back for this game in the same way that Yamasawa was used so successfully by Panasonic against McKenzie. Lee’s fast, he’s strong, he makes good decisions and has a good kicking game – despite his lack of experince at 15.
*Sungoliath have not beaten Kobe Steelers since December 17th, 2017 (At Chichibunomiya)
Suntory Sungoliath Vs Kobe Steelers
Friday, March 4th, 2022. Kick off 7pm. Chichibunomiya.
No bad weather expected for Friday Night in Tokyo