IBM Big Blue may have recorded its first win of the year, in beating World Fighting Bull 37-28 at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya on Saturday, but it wasn’t enough to prevent it from taking up one of the two automatic relegation spots from the Top League.
The Sanyo Wild Knights’ 61-7 demolition of the Kintetsu Liners at Osaka’s Hanazono Stadium, ensured IBM’s fate, and means the game between World and Kintetsu on Jan. 12 will decide which other team drops out of Japan’s top rugby competition — the winner almost certainly facing a playoff to stay in the top flight.
“We had already resigned ourselves to going down,” said IBM fullback Peter Miller. “It’s good to get a win and hopefully we will come straight back up. This is a young team so hopefully the experience will do them some good.”
The Australian, who would normally have spent Christmas Day on the beaches of New South Wales’ Central Coast, scored a try, three conversions and two penalties for a personal tally of 17 points, as IBM put in its best performance of the year.
But the Big Blue were helped by a woeful performance from their opponents.
“We were poor at best,” bemoaned World head coach Des Kissane.
“Give credit to IBM. They played very well and exploited our weaknesses, but we played dumb. We did our homework and then did the opposite of what we were supposed to do.”
It was perhaps reflective of the game that the vast majority of the nine tries scored came as a result of errors.
Interceptions, turnovers and poorly placed kicks seemed to be the order of the day as the two teams tried to outdo themselves in the handing out of Christmas presents.
Not that there wasn’t the odd moment of brilliance.
In the 37th minute, a poor clearance kick gave Miller the chance to counter-attack from his own 10-meter line. The ball eventually made its way to lock Peter Besseling, who made space for himself with a superb dummy, before offloading to Munenori Nakahara. The hooker then outdid his teammate with a wonderful behind the back pass that put Toshiyuki Yamanaka away for the first of his two tries.
With IBM leading 19-7 at halftime, one can imagine that the language used by Kissane was not the sort used in a typical Christmas Day movie. And it obviously worked as Takeshi Nakaya scored within 35 seconds of the game restarting.
But the Fighting Bull then went off the boil and allowed IBM back into the game and once again World’s inability to take the points when on offer came back to haunt it.
Trailing by nine points with five minutes left to play, World opted against taking an easy three points and regrouping for one last effort for a try and the win.
And although hooker Takashi Honda eventually closed the gap to 30-28 with three minutes remaining, Yamanaka’s second try and Miller’s conversion right on fulltime handed the win, if not the glory, to IBM.
It also ensured a nervous New Year holiday for Kissane and his team.
“If we don’t win (our next game), we don’t deserve to be in the Top League,” Kissane said.
In the day’s other games, last year’s champion the Kobe Kobelco Steelers beat Suntory Sungoliath 31-24, while the Kubota Spears beat the Ricoh Black Rams 38-21.
With one round of games remaining, Sanyo’s win means it moves up to eighth spot (and a place in the Microsoft Cup), while Ricoh’s defeat sees Brian Smith’s team drop into ninth spot and face a relegation playoff game.
Such is the difference between success and failure.
Top two teams to face off
While all eyes were on the bottom of the table on Saturday, attention will be focused on the top on Sunday.
Third-place Toyota Verblitz takes on the fourth-place NEC Green Rockets at Mizuho Stadium in Nagoya, while Toshiba Brave Lupus (1st) takes on Yamaha Jubilo (2nd) at Yamaha Stadium in Iwata.
Whichever team wins the top of the table clash will have its destiny in its own hands, as both teams go into the penultimate game of the season on 40 points — though Toshiba is top by virtue of having scored 63 tries to Yamaha’s 43.
However, they will both be best served to remember what happened last year as Suntory — first going into the final weekend — lost 50-10 to Toshiba, handing the title to Kobe, a 31-21 winner over NEC on the day.
In an ironic twist of fate, Toshiba faces Suntory on Jan. 10, while Yamaha is up against Kobe.
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