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The Kobe Kobelco Steelers missed out on a golden opportunity to keep pace with the Top League leaders on Saturday, losing 38-24 to the NEC Green Rockets.

The inaugural Top League champions (in the 2003-04 campaign) came into this Round 9 game at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground having lost just one game, as opposed to NEC, which had dropped five.

And with games against the unbeaten duo of the Yamaha Jubilo and Suntory Sungoliath still to come once the league resumes following the November break, Jim McKay’s team knew a win would keep it well in the hunt for the title.

But the Steelers came up against a NEC side that was far hungrier and made sure every loose ball seemed to end up in its hands.

Scott Higginbotham, who will head back to Australia at the end of the season to play for the Reds, was outstanding.

The 30-year-old back-row forward, who gets married next week, picked a great angle to score one try and set up two more with deft passes as the Green Rockets picked up their third win of the season.

“That’s the first time we’ve seen the Green Rockets stick to a solid game plan for the full 80 minutes and it’s very pleasing,” said NEC coach Peter Russell.

Kobe is now 10 points behind Yamaha, which hammered the Coca-Cola Red Sparks 50-11, and four back of Suntory, who take on the Kubota Spears on Sunday.

In the day’s other games, the Toshiba Brave Lupus’ dreadful run continued as they went down 34-29 to the NTT Communications Shining Arcs, their fifth loss in the past six games.

The Canon Eagles beat the Munakata Sanix Blues 35-5 with Sanix fullback Jamie-Jerry Taulagi handed the first red card of the season for two pieces of dangerous play in the space of two minutes, while the Toyota Verblitz edged the Ricoh Black Rams 20-16.

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