The Toshiba Brave Lupus players may well have made some last-minute additions to the New Year cards they sent out this year following last Sunday’s two Top League games.
While Toshiba was recording its 10th win of the season in beating second-place Yamaha Jubilo 29-10 — and equally as importantly preventing Grant Batty’s men from getting a bonus point either from having scored four tries or losing by a margin of seven points or less — the NEC Green Rockets turned over Toyota Verblitz 35-30. A result that ensured that Toshiba was crowned the Top League champion.
With just one game remaining, the Brave Lupus top the table with 45 points, Yamaha has 40, while NEC and Toyota have 39 and 38, respectively.
And though there is a mathematical chance that Yamaha could catch up — should they get maximum points against the Kobe Kobelco Steelers on Jan. 8, while Toshiba loses to archrival Suntory Sungoliath, and in doing so not claim a bonus point — the fact that Toshiba won the head-to-head between the two top teams ensured that the champion’s pennant was handed to the Brave Lupus players following Sunday’s win at Yamaha Stadium.
And just reward too.
Not that the players were doing too much in the way of celebrating on Sunday.
“We received the pennant and that was it,” said vice-captain Nick Holten.
“And then it was back to work on Monday. We want to finish the season properly, though we may celebrate after the Suntory game.”
Toshiba may have been slammed in some quarters for playing an unattractive style of rugby — there is only so much you can do to make eight forwards in a rolling maul look pretty — but that would be taking away from the inventive approach taken by head coach Masahiro Kunda.
Fifteen-man rugby has usually meant the type of “champagne rugby” played by the great French sides of the past. Forwards who not only had a bit of the thug in them but who could run and pass, and backs who played with panache and style, while doing their best to avoid the hard graft up front.
Kunda has taken that one step further, and while it may not be a style that would serve Japan well on the international stage, it has certainly made its mark on the domestic scene.
Fullback-cum-wing Tsutomu Matsuda was wearing the No. 13 jersey on Sunday (the first time he has ever played in the centers), but the 34-year-old, who played alongside Kunda when Toshiba won three straight All Japan Championships from 1997-99, has also appeared on the flank for a number of scrums this season as Toshiba has made use of a game plan that has every player at ease no matter what position they are picked.
Hitoshi Ono caused a great deal of confusion last season when he was listed on the national team roster as a wing, even though he has spent most of his time playing as a flanker or lock for his club.
Even former All Blacks have been “moved” for the good of the cause, with center Scott McLeod playing one game at No. 8.
“The players have really matured a lot this season,” said Holten.
“Thirty-six of the 43 players in the squad have played, and the coaching staff have utilized the individual strengths and based a game plan around them. If we have had an injury then a player slots in and it hasn’t affected anyone. The hard work we did in the spring and summer has meant everyone is tougher both physically and mentally.
“We have played well collectively as a team, have been stronger at the contact point and our support play has been really good.”
The result: Toshiba has steamrollered over every team it has come up against save for one blip at the beginning of the season when it lost its opener to Kobe — the first time Kunda picked his first-choice team, after experimenting with different combinations in the preseason.
With players interchanging at will, it was an all too common sight to see the 120-kg Luatangi Vatuvei lined up in the centers from set-play, and the Tongan-born lock-cum-No. 8 has reveled in it, scoring 18 tries.
Quite how he was deemed not good enough to make the Japan team for its tour of Europe is one of the season’s great mysteries.
Kunda will be hoping the knee injury that caused the genial Vatuvei to be stretchered off on Sunday will not keep him out of too many games, as the season reaches a climax.
However, such is the complexity of the schedule, it would need one of Microsoft’s top programmers to keep track of what is going on.
While IBM Big Blue and either the Kintetsu Liners or World Fighting Bull will be automatically relegated (replaced by the top two teams from a series of playoffs between the top regional teams), the sides finishing ninth and 10th in the Top League will play off against the third and fourth-placed regional teams to decide the make up of next year’s competition.
At the same time, the top regional team, the top two university teams and the club champion will be playing preliminary-round games in the All Japan Championship.
Not that this will bother Kunda and his Toshiba team.
For them, all eyes will be focused on the Microsoft Cup, played for by the teams finishing in the top eight of the 12-team Top League. The winner of that and Toshiba (as league champion) will then enter the All Japan competition at the semifinal stage, while the second and third-placed teams in the Top League enter at the quarterfinal stage.
Kunda will no doubt be hoping to make things even more confusing by winning a league and cup double, before going after an unprecedented sweep of all three trophies.
But as NEC proved at the weekend, there is every opportunity for a spanner to be thrown into the works.
It promises to be an interesting two months of rugby.
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