Seven teams confirmed their places in the playoffs to determine the Japan Rugby Top League champion Saturday as the pool stage reached its penultimate round.
Yamaha Jubilo, the Panasonic Wild Knights, Ricoh Black Rams and Kubota Spears will all progress from the White Conference, while the Kobe Kobelco Steelers, Toyota Verblitz and Suntory Sungoliath made sure they cannot finish outside the top four in the Red Conference.
“There’s a bit of relief,” Toyota coach Jake White said of reaching the playoffs ahead of next week’s pool finale when all of the sides will be missing its Japan internationals as they prepare for the autumn test matches.
“There’s no noose hanging over us and it does give us a chance to try a few things, even though we are very conscious it is a big derby game (against the Toyota Industries Shuttles).”
Yamaha booked its spot by beating the Canon Eagles 52-17 to make it 24 points for the season. Jubilo head the White group by two points from Panasonic, which advances despite incurring its first defeat of the season, and its first-ever Top League loss in its hometown of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, having won its previous 28 games there.
A 72nd-minute try by Colin Bourke sealed a 26-17 win for Ricoh over Robbie Deans’ side and leaves the Black Rams in third place with 19 points.
Kubota’s 26-24 defeat of Toshiba ensured it has 18 points and that it will finish at least fourth, leaving the Brave Lupus, the Eagles, Honda Heat and Coca-Cola Red Sparks to battle it out in the playoffs for ninth to 16th place.
Honda beat Coca-Cola 52-31 on Saturday to leave the Red Sparks without a point to their name after six games.
Kobe Steel, now the only unbeaten side in the league, tops the Red group with 25 points following its 66-37 win over the Shuttles in which Atsushi Hiwasa scored a hat trick of tries and Dan Carter kicked sevens conversions from as many attempts.
Verblitz (22 points) are second after they beat the NTT Communications Shining Arcs 38-36, while Suntory is a further point back in third place thanks to a 40-18 victory over the bottom side Munakata Sanix Blues who, like their Kyushu neighbor, Coca-Cola, have yet to record a single point in the campaign.
The NEC Green Rockets — who beat Hino 38-12 to eliminate the Red Dolphins from a possible top-four finish — NTT Comms and the Shuttles all go into the final weekend of pool matches with a chance of advancing to the championship playoffs.
“We are getting a little bit better but are still having too many soft moments,” said NTT coach Rob Penney, whose side has now lost four games by seven points or less.
“Once we get some good results, the confidence will come and we will be a hard team to beat,” added the New Zealander, whose team is favored to take the final championship playoff spot given it plays Sanix next week.
At Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, Verblitz bounced back from an early deficit to pick up their fourth win of the season.
But they were made to work all the way as NTT started and finished the stronger of the two teams.
Shingo Nakashima bagged a brace and Ryutaro Ueda also crossed the chalk as the Shining Arcs jumped out to a 22-12 lead.
A second try from Yuki Okada, however, and one from Yoshikatsu Hikosaka — to go with earlier efforts from Steven Yates and Okada — saw Verblitz lead 26-22 at the break.
Okada completed his hat trick in the 51st minute and Jamie Henry also touched down before Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco and Atsushi Yumoto closed the gap and set up a grandstand finish.
Verblitz’s defense held firm though, much to the relief of White.
“It was like a boxing match out there,” he said. “We punched, they punched back. I thought we had knocked them out when we got to 38-22 ahead but then we got a yellow card and they came right back.”