JRLO Week 9 Preview: Kobe Steelers Vs Tokyo Black Rams

Saturday Showdown in Kobe Make-Or-Break for Both Teams

Note: All of the following was written prior to the publishing of the team lists at 14:30 on Thursday. Scroll to the bottom for the gameday 23s and any new analysis.

Almost exactly one year ago on March 14th, the Steelers and Black Rams were locked in a gritty 20-19 arm wrestle in Tokyo, with Kobe eventually emerging victorious.

There have been the occasional lopsided match-up through the years, but in the main these contests are hard fought and close affairs, with Black Rams considered by players to be a big annual rival of the Steelers.

Neither team can afford to lose as the tournament enters its second half. The Black Rams in 7th are on 16 points from 3 wins, while the 9th placed Steelers are on 11 points from only 2!

What Happened Last Week?

Tokyo Black Rams

An entertaining tussle between 2 teams struggling a bit in 2022 mid-table obscurity – the Black Rams eventually emerging with a narrow 21-18 win over NEC Green Rockets. NEC are actually winless so far in 2022, but have been the beneficiaries of 2 bonus point wins due to Covid19 forfeits. Yet they were looking good in large parts of this match on the back of some strong forward play and nice work from the boot of Lemeki at 10. Ricoh finally took the lead on the hour mark on a powerful try from returning wing Amanaki Lotoahea and would hang onto that lead despite the best efforts from the NEC forwards for a full nail-biting 8 minutes of extra time camped near the Black Rams’ goal line. At one point in the second 40, Ricoh had been 11 points down and looking headed for a loss, before full back Tyler Main scored a magnificent solo try to bring them back to within 4 and providing some much needed momentum.

Game Highlights
Tyler Main is the Black Rams poster boy for this week’s matchup with Kobe

Kobelco Kobe Steelers

Utter debacle. Don’t even want to write it up.

Apart from a promising opening 10 minutes when Kobe kept possession, were moving forward, and actually took an early lead, the Steelers totally lost the plot and were annihilated by Suntory Sungoliath 56-17. First from opportunistic (but not especially clever) Sungoliath counter attack, but more and more so in general play, Kobe lost all ability to defend when on the back foot. Especially guilty were the backs, and particularly the back 3. In the face of any pressure whatsoever, Rakuhei Yamashita, Ataata Moeakiola, and Ryohei Yamanaka appeared to be playing rugby for the very first time, as Suntory attack after attack sliced effotlessly through them like a hot knife through butter. It would have been appropriate if those three had carried red matador’s capes and shouted “Olé!” as they were mercilessly stepped, turned around, or rooted to the spot by the Sungoliath back line. Watching from the sofa, it was cushion-in-front-of-the-face horrorific. Both Canon and Suntory have absolutely shredded them for 8 tries in similar fashion this season. Lukhanyo Am cannot arrive quickly enough!

New jersey idea for the Kobe backs?
Player of the Match Damian McKenzie utterly dominated the Kobe Steelers with a 3 try, 31 point haul.

The feeble (JRLO) Kobe presser following the slaughter focused on asking Dave Dillon and Atsushi Hiwasa why Kobe were unable to ‘attack as usual’ (Major spoiler guys: it’s because you were unable to defend. Suntory captain Ryoto Nakamura was the only one to mention this vital connection – albeit from the other side of the equation: “it was easy for Sungoliath to attack,” he said, “because they were playing such good, penalty-free defense.” Well, duh!). In addition, the far-from-pointy-question-askers basically gave the Steelers coach and captain every excuse for blaming the defeat on lack of preparation or recent game time due to the positive PCR tests in the Kobe camp. Just save everyone’s brain cells and cut out the pressers if real questions aren’t going to be asked nor answered.

Should have a trigger warning attached.

Stats Again!

There are a number of stats we could have a look at this week.

First, the shocking realization that, despite the successes of recent years and a sparkly new state-of-the-art training facility, the Kobe Steelers are experiencing their worst season since Top League began in 2003. In fact it’s not even close. The very worst season starts experienced a win rate of no less than 50%. 2022 – the first JRLO season – represents a 25% winning start. Even if we concentrated purely on actual games played and not ‘unfair’ Covid forfeits, the win rate would still only be 33%.

Check out this season’s blot on our history book below:

Seasonrecord thru 8 gamesWin Rate
*Season cancelled after 6 games due to Covid19
The ‘All Blacks’ inspired training facility. We played better using the old sheds!!

Then let’s look at what is a pretty important stat if you want to win rugby games. Tackle success. It’s not the ONLY important stat of course, but you aren’t going to enjoy much of a season if you can’t tackle your opponents.

Below is the tackle rate success for the 12 teams of JRLO, ranked basically best to worst.

4 percent difference doesn’t seem like an awful not, but it is. It’s no coincidence that the bottom half of this table is made up of teams from the bottom half of the standings. The outlier is Toyota Verblitz. No team has benefitted more from Covid19 cancellations. Their current 3rd place is not earned, and you can expect a hefty correction before season’s end. The previous 3 seasons for Kobe were 87%, 85% and 86% for comparison – good enough for a top place finish in this table, by the way.

We are not tackling as well as we should be.

I have already mentioned the back 3 from the Sungoliath game above, but lets have a look at the entire backs data over the whole 6 games.

Obviously, backs are not as successful in their tackling as forwards tend to be, as the nature of their task is very different (largely at greater speed in open play) but there are some troubling stats to be found among the Kobe backs. The green and red coloring is quite arbitrary, but I based it on being either below or above the team average of 82%. Anderson tops the table due to limited games (2) and minutes, but at the same time he has not messed up a tackle. Buckman, however, appears to be the ONLY Kobelco back with any talent in stopping the opposition. Atsushi Hiwasa isn’t bad either for a little terrier, and certainly a huge upgrade on his understudy – the young Daiki Nakajima. But the two Yamas, Rakuhei Yamashita (excpet for one game) and Japan representative (!) Ryohei Yamanaka have been largely appalling this season. They need to be tackle-drilled a heck of a lot more before they deserve another start. And it’s tackling in retreat that they are getting so wrong, when Kobe get turned around.

Not much to say here. Second rows know how to tackle. If they don’t, they find they aren’t selected to play second row for long. Jang has been making a lot of tackles from the #8 position, and Takara Imamura has been starting at 6. We need both those guys on the field as much as possible. Schickerling and Jang of course, have been the primary ball carriers from 4 thru 8.

None of these players have had that much game time, at least not game starts anyway. The back row has often been made up of players registered as locks, with designated loose forwards being used more sparingly as substitutes or as injury cover. Still, the disappointment of captain Daiki Hashimoto’s season so far is pretty clear – no more so than to him I am sure.

I think I wrote this somewhere before but our hookers are underperforming defensively, each one of them tackling at below the team success average. This is apart from young Wang, who has played only 43 minutes but hasn’t missed a tackle. Among the props, Isileli Nakajima is a total workhorse in the loose, accounting for easily the most carries among front-rowers. He is, however, missing a good deal of tackles.

So What Can We Expect On Saturday?

If the tackling statistics of the two teams continues as above, I think we can certainly expect Tokyo Black Rams to pick up their 4th win of the season and push Kobe to a cringe-worthy but also certainly season-ending 2-7 start.

I have little faith in Ryohei Yamanaka anymore. He struggles mightily against small, quick backs with good steps and instincts, such as Suntory’s Damian McKenzie or Canon’s Junpei Ogura. He was also turned inside out by the pace and power of Israel Folau in week one. He is, at best, inconsistent in the air. In this matchup with Black Rams it’s likely his opposite number will be youngster Tyler Main, who was used to good effect against NEC – scoring a vital try and picking up his first Player of the Match award in the process. Main has nowhere near the size or experience of Yamanaka, but his youth, pace, energy, and sharp instincts are enought to cause Yamanaka nightmares if he links well with Isaac Lucas and powerful inside center Joe Tomane, and of course Amanaki Lotoahea or Kurihara on the wings.

Ricoh will know from tape how vulnerable Kobe are now when teams get in behind them. Every time they’ve been turned around and put on the back foot, they have been almost powerless to prevent tries, like all of the players are suddenly on a different page.

But teams are dangerous coming off of big beats. There is definitely something to be said for wounded pride, but it rather depends on whether Kobe still care enough to save the season. I guess we will find out on Saturday.

If you want to compare a few more team stats, apart from the tackle success stats above, here are the forwards/set piece comparisons between the two clubs.

Kobe SteelersBlack Rams
Lineout success93.180.8
Scrum success7066
Ruck success9494

Both teams have struggled mightily at scrum time, which is much more of a surprise for Kobe considering the number of Japan caps there are on the front row. There isn’t much difference at the breakdown, but Kobe seem to enjoy an advantage at the lineout – although maybe not with the return of 202cm Michael Stolberg for the Black Rams from last week.

The Game Day 23s

Thursday Analysis (after some cool-down!)

Well there are an enormous number of changes to Kobe’s line-up from last week, not just in terms of personnel but in positions as well. In total the Steelers have replaced or moved 11 of the 15 starters from last week, and 19 of the game-day 23.

In contrast, Black Rams Tokyo are 4 of the starting 15 and 8 of last week’s game-day 23. In many cases, starter and finisher have simply switched positions. To put it into better persepctive, there are only 2 players in Ricoh’s line-up for Saturday that did not feature last week against NEC. They are Matt Lucas – who is reserve scrum half but his return is a great reason for celebration, and Horigome, who replaces a resting Matt McGahan in the 22 jersey.

Kobe Steelers have 7 players this week who did not take part in the evisceration by Suntory. They are Arita, Yambu, Imamura, Anderson, Takao, Hashimoto, Maekawa. Gone completely are Maeda, Jang, Yamanaka, Matsuoka, Hirashima, Oike, and Inoue.

On the one hand, if you are a believer in the positive power of team cohesion, you would have to conclude advantage Black Rams. However, let’s not forget how appalling last week’s game day 23 perfomed. Part of me is concerned at the scale of the changes, but another part of me is happy to see the coaches swing the axe – sending the message to both players and fans that they aren’t happy either! In any case, it is probably wise to engage in a wholesale barn-sweep than to have a team be cohesively crap.

And there is one more thing to remember. Those who played last week had not done so for nearly a month due to the Covid19 forfeits (and it showed!). So the 7 new players this week have not played competitive rugby for more than a month! Shigure Takao has yet to play this season! Fraser Anderson and Ryujei Arita haven’t played since January 15th! Yambu hasn’t since January 29th! Maekawa, Imamura, and Hashimoto haven’t since February 6th!

But we are also back to looking like we still have no clear idea of who our best members are, and in what positions they should play. Let’s not forget we are 9 games into the season! When they did the same headless-chicken impression during the opening weeks you could almost forgive it – although I criticized it then, too. But now? Moving into the second half of the season? Are other teams still doing the same? Still searching for their starting line-up? I don’t think they are.

So of the three villains I indentified far above, Ryohei Yamanaka is cut completely (good) and Ataata Moeakiola is relegated to the bench – where he will likely replace the aging Anderson on right wing at some point. The only survivor is Rakuhei Yamashita, who keeps a starting position most likely because we are very short of game-ready wingers. Good luck against a physical Lotoahea, Rakuhei.

Timothy Lafaele did not have a good day against Nakamura, Kerevi and McKenzie last week, and steps back to the 22 jersey – where he can cover pretty much any of the backs. Buckman slides over to 13 to make room for gameday captain Seungsin Lee at 12, who will get some good playing time against fellow youngster and great pal, Tyler Main who will start at 15 for Tokyo.

There are 4 locks on the field for the Steelers. If you recall the tackle stats that may not be a bad thing. Maekawa, Hashimoto, and McCurran are all pretty solid tacklers, too. The starting front row of Nakajima, Arita, and Yamashita might be a bit of a worry going just by the stats table above, but are just as likely to have good days as bad.

Will all the musical-jerseys tinkering help stop Kobe’s defensive bleed? It’s unlikely to solve itself in a week – with players who haven’t spent any meaningful game time together. We have simply been unable to defend teams that turn us around and put us on our back foot. Ricoh has exactly the kind of weapons in the Lucas boys to get in behind the Kobe line, whether through kicks or darting runs. They must have identified Kobe’s weaknesses too, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them try to apply as much pressure as possible onto the Steelers backfield. But Kobe must be expecting this. The coaching team has no doubt raked them over the coals on the practice field all week, and the whole team will, or at least, be suffering from a dent to the pride, and to the legacy. It is worth remembering that after conceding 8 tries to Canon in week 2, the coaches made wholescale changes and the result was beating a good Kubota Spears side at Noevir.

Kobe Steelers Vs Black Rams Tokyo
Saturday, March 12th, 2022.
Kick off 14:30
Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium
Expected weather: Sunny. Possible highs of 18 Celcius.

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