Following a four-week break — supposedly to allow Japan to take its best team on what turned out to be a disastrous tour of Europe — Top League rugby action made its return on Saturday.
At Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya, Toshiba Brave Lupus, one of four teams heading the table on 25 points going into the day’s games, beat the Sanyo Wild Knights 31-14, while the Ricoh Black Rams saw off IBM Big Blue 30-12 in the day’s curtain raiser.
Meanwhile, at Kobe Wing Stadium, Suntory Sungoliath dehorned World Fighting Bull 42-16, before the Kobe Kobelco Steelers blunted the Kubota Spears 33-21.
Ricoh head coach Brian Smith may not have admitted it at the start of the season, but the mid-season interruption came at just the right time for his club.
Three consecutive wins had seen the Black Rams top the table back in October but a triumvirate of losses had left them just above the two relegation playoff spots.
What better way to return to action than a game against a Big Blue team that has, despite playing some entertaining rugby, lost all six of its games.
“The break allowed us to get over some injuries, in particular at scrumhalf,” said Smith. “We have made this our new starting point and the win will help us regain some composure and has got our season back on track.”
Former All Black Glen Osborne — with a try, two conversions and two penalty goals — and Hiroyuki Kamitori, with two tries, led the way as Ricoh accounted for a strangely lackluster IBM in a game that took both teams some time to brush off the cobwebs that seem to have developed during November.
“The turnovers did it for us today,” said IBM center Karl Te Nana. “We couldn’t get the ball for long periods and we were on the back foot the whole day.”
Osborne’s try in the 12th minute told the story of the day.
A poor clearance kick and even poorer following up by IBM saw Osborne receive the ball 45 meters out — though the fullback turned flyhalf will probably be telling everyone 70 meters by the end of the evening.
And with the IBM defense parting like the Red Sea, Osborne used his pace and a step off the right leg to go over unopposed.
IBM gave a glimpse of what it had to offer when Munenori Nakahara showed good awareness and pace for a hooker to support a break by sevens’ specialist Te Nana, but Kamitori’s second try in the 76th minute — the result of a well-executed rolling maul — killed off any hopes the Big Blue had of salvaging the game.
In the main event at Chichibunomiya, the biggest shock of the day wasn’t that Luantangi Vatuvei had to wait 42 minutes to record his 15th try in just seven games, but the sight of former All Black center Scott McLeod taking the field in the No. 8 jersey.
“I really enjoyed it,” said McLeod, who was filling in for the suspended Nick Holten.
“I kept telling (Masahiro) Kunda that I needed more training but he said I would be OK. But I was really disappointed not to be used in the line-out,” he added with a smile.
McLeod and Sanyo flyhalf Tony Brown were also called upon to act as translators by referee Lyndon Bray, over here for two weeks from New Zealand.
“It was a very enjoyable game and about the same standard as second-division NPC rugby,” said Bray after the game.
Toshiba’s five tries not only ensured a bonus point but means it stays top irrespective of Sunday’s results as a result of scoring more five-pointers than Yamaha Jubilo and the NEC Green Rockets, who play each other at Osaka’s Hanazono Stadium, and Toyota Verblitz, which takes on the Kintetsu Liners.
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