While the rest of the world was watching the final stages of the action Down Under at the Rugby World Cup, it was business as usual for the players in the Top League.
Following a six-week break, while Japan delighted the locals with its brave, running style of rugby, the competition resumed on Nov. 8, and much to the delight of all concerned it seems the Top League is finally getting around to living up to its name.
Following each of Japan’s games in Australia, the common message from both players and management was that Japanese rugby would only get better as a result of the new league.
At the time there seemed little proof that this was the case as the opening two weeks had seen the same teams win by the same huge scorelines.
However, the break seems to have done wonders, particularly for those teams that did not lose any players to the World Cup, and the competition has come to life with a number of close-run games that have gone down to the wire.
While it is true that the NEC Green Rockets, Toshiba Fuchu Brave Lupus and Suntory Sungoliath remain in the top three spots, there are now at least six teams that are capable of topping the league and going on to win the Microsoft Cup, which is played for by the top eight teams in the league.
Yamaha Jubilo (6th) held NEC to a 20-20 draw during week 4 of the competition, while Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers (4th) have dropped just one game (their opener against Suntory).
However, it is the Kubota Spears (5th) who have surprised everyone. Having lost its two opening games to Fukuoka Sanix Bombs and NEC (during which some of its players looked as if they couldn’t tackle their way out of a paper bag) the team coached by Matt O’Connor has rebounded beating the Ricoh Black Bulls 46-28, Toshiba 36-35 and Suntory 40-31.
“I was happy with our preparation at the start of the season but we were missing a few players and the first two games put a massive dent in our confidence,” O’Connor told The Japan Times on Friday.
“But we made a few reshuffles in the forwards and held three or four trial games while the World Cup was on. I also moved Hideyuki Yoshida into flyhalf. He is the most complete footballer in Japan and should be Japan’s flyhalf at the next World Cup.
“The win against Ricoh helped restore confidence and then the boys really did well against Toshiba and Suntory.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that the top four teams provided the bulk of the players for the Japan squad in the 2003 World Cup, and the unofficial word from the Suntory camp is that its internationals are suffering from burnout following their tremendous performances in Townsville and Gosford. However, it is also the case that the other teams have improved significantly and the close nature of the games (Ricoh has lost two on the trot by a converted try) can only help the players as they progress to the international arena, not to mention the game in general in Japan.
Any further prove that close-run games are what the game is all about came on Nov. 22, a day that the Japan Rugby Football Union had fortunately designated as a day-off for the Top League.
The Rugby World Cup final was one of the great sporting spectacles of all time. The closeness of the game and the excitement it generated was a credit to both teams and besides keeping rugby fans on the edge of their seats for 100 minutes, the game also converted thousands more into rugby fans, drawn by its drama and by its competitive and sporting nature.
If the Top League carries on as it has been for the last three weeks, then the job of the newly formed JRFU committee “The Committee to get into the (World Cup) Quarterfinals” should be slightly easier that it may have appeared back in May when Russia embarrassed Japan at Chichibunomiya.
How times have changed.
Former local rugby player Gareth MacFadyen will be remembered on Dec. 6 when the Tokyo Crusaders and the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club battle one another for the MacFadyen Cup.
The 24-year-old New Zealander died in December 2000 as a result of burns inflicted during a Christmas party in Auckland, and the two clubs have played a game in his honor every year since.
The Cru’ won the first game 6-5 but lost 10-5 in 2002 and were hammered 45-12 in last year’s fixture. However, they will not doubt be delighted to learn that their nemesis of the last two years (a last-minute try to clinch the game in 2002 and kicks from all corners of the field last year) has finally decided to listen to his body and retire.
No doubt there will be many others come the morning after, who will be thinking along the same lines — though that may have more to do with the copious amounts of alcohol drunk in MacFadyen’s memory.
The 2nd team game kicks off at 1.30 p.m., with the 1st XV game at 2.45 p.m. Details on how to get to the YCAC ground can be obtained from www.ycac.or.jp
For those who prefer to play in warmer climates, the Tsunami Teetotallers are preparing their touring schedule for 2004.
A touring team based in Japan that caters for players from around the world, the Teetotallers have been regulars at the Guam True Grit Tens, the Pattaya Tens and last year finished third at the Manila Tens (where they joined forces with a team from Thailand) before finishing runners-up in the Kowloon Tens.
If anyone is interested in the ultimate touring experience (though rumor has it they do not live up to their name) then contact Kyle Podziewski at firstname.lastname@example.org
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