"Richie Mo'unga Eyes the Title" - Japan Rugby League One Final Preview: Saitama Wild Knights vs Toshiba Brave Lupus - Ruck

“Richie Mo’unga Eyes the Title” – Japan Rugby League One Final Preview: Saitama Wild Knights vs Toshiba Brave Lupus

Preview Provided by Japan Rugby League One Media Press Release

Marika Koroibete (Wallabies) v Jone Naikabula (Brave Blossoms).

Rikiya Matusda (Brave Blossoms) v Richie Mo’unga (All Blacks).

Jack Cornelsen (Brave Blossoms) v Michael Leitch (Brave Blossoms).

Ben Gunter (Brave Blossoms) v Shannon Frizell (All Blacks).

Lood De Jager (Springboks) v Warner Dearns (Brave Blossoms).

Damien De Allende (Springboks) v Seta Tamanivalu (All Blacks).

Robbie Deans (Crusaders/Wallabies) v Todd Blackadder (Crusaders/Bath)

Everywhere you look, there are enthralling head-to-head contests in Sunday’s Japan Rugby League One final as the competition’s two best teams, and best coaches, come together for the last dance of a compelling season. The Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, unbeaten in 17, are chasing a record seventh national title since the semiprofessional era in the Japanese game began with the advent of the Top League in 2003.

Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo have won five and will tie their opponents in titles won if they can reverse the result from their last appearance in the decider – in 2015-16 – when they lost 27-26 to this weekend’s opponents. That result was the second occasion on which the Wild Knights have pipped Brave Lupus in the final, having prevailed 30-21 when they met in at the end of the 2013-14 season.

Although Toshiba’s titles are exceeded only by Panasonic, they have not been champions of Japan since the 2009- 10 season, when they won their fifth consecutive championship, having first tasted success in the 2005-06 competition. Ominously, they have lost the last nine times that they have collided with the Wild Knights, including their date in
March when Brave Lupus suffered their only reverse of the season in a 36-24 defeat.

Toshiba coach Todd Blackadder has progressively built up the Brave Lupus machine since the former Bath boss arrived in 2019, making improvements in personnel as well as building player confidence.

The first shoots of progress came two years ago when they reached the semi-finals in the maiden edition of Japan Rugby League One, before narrowly missing out last term when the Wild Knights ended their six-game winning run on the last weekend of the regular season to deny them a spot in the final four.

A former All Black and Crusaders captain, Blackadder has had a close association Robbie Deans, having combined with the Wild Knights mentor in a captain/coach combination for Canterbury’s win in the 1997 edition of New Zealand’s national provincial championship, and then in Deans’s maiden season and Super Rugby title as Crusaders coach three years later.

The 2000 success was the first of five Deans had in Super Rugby, a number he has since equalled from his association with the Wild Knights, and he will go past that number if he can once again get the better of his protégé in their fifth meeting as rival coaches.

Deans, who helped progress Blackadder’s coaching career when he brought him on board as an assistant during the Crusaders’ 2007 and title-winning 2008 seasons – subsequently passing on the torch in 2009 – has beaten his former captain on all four occasions that they have opposed each other in Japan. The Kiwi pair, who are good mates, even hail from the same amateur country rugby club, Glenmark-Cheviot, on the main highway, 90 minutes north of Christchurch.

Among the game’s individual milestones, easily the most significant is that it will be the last game in the remarkable career of Wild Knights hooker Shota Horie. While much of the international focus from Japan’s various Rugby World Cup adventures has fallen on skipper
Michael Leitch, in local eyes Horie is just as big an icon, arguably more, as an ethnic Japanese.

The 37-year-old’s storied career includes four Rugby World Cups and 76 tests for his country, while he last year went past the 150-game mark for the Wild Knights, having squeezed in 18 appearances for the Melbourne Rebels in the 2013 and 2014 Super Rugby seasons, five for Otago in the 2012 national provincial championship, and 26 for the Sunwolves between 2016 and 2019, as well.

Horie made his debut for Japan in 2009. A decade later, the hooker was awarded player of the match after the Brave Blossoms’ historic win over the world’s then number one ranked side, Ireland, at the home 2019 Rugby World Cup.

With their popular former captain having been part of each of the six titles won by the Wild Knights in the professional era, his teammates will be desperate to see him sign off with a seventh, which would be an appropriate end as one of the legends of the Japanese and world game takes his final bow.

The big questions to be answered in the final 80 minutes of the league season

Something’s gotta give: With 32 wins between them (from 34 matches), the two best defences in the land (the Wild Knights have conceded tries at an average of 2.4 per game, Brave Lupus at 3), as well as the two sharpest attacking units (Wild Knights average 6.4 tries a game, Brave Lupus 5), the margins promise to be tight.

With fluidity the key to both sides’ game, the league’s turnover ‘king’ Lachlan Boshier could be the man to watch. Unlucky not to earn All Black selection in his homeland, the ex-(Waikato) Chiefs player from Super Rugby has proved a smart pick up by Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans and leads turnover numbers in the league having snared 16.

Can Richie Mo’unga add to his title collection?
With seven Super Rugby titles under his belt, the All Black flyhalf has brought the winning mentality to Brave Lupus that Todd Blackadder sought, turning a side for whom making the playoffs was a good result into a machine that is a genuine title contender.

While Mo’unga’s class has shown throughout, the team’s resilience and growing belief was illustrated by its unbeaten run during the three matches he missed on bereavement leave, holding a star-studded Kobelco Kobe Steelers side whose season was on the line to a 40-40 draw, before downing arch-rivals Sungoliath in the season’s second derby a week later.

Toshiba’s mental strength came through again as they overpowered Sungoliath in last weekend’s semi-final, retaining their belief and confidence even after Suntory dominated the first period of the game, and led at halftime. Last year, in those circumstances, Toshiba might have cracked. Not this time.

Will Todd Blackadder FINALLY crack the title code?

For a man who’s record as a professional coach is nothing to be sniffed at, there is a surprising absence from his CV. The ex-All Black captain has never won a title, twice going close during his time with the Crusaders during narrow losses to Australian opposition, while also producing more than acceptable results during each of his stints with Tasman (New Zealand’s national provincial championship), Bath Rugby (England’s Premiership) and Brave

Blackadder arrived in Japan with Brave Lupus at a low ebb. He has steadily built the club up in the time since, taking them to the semi-finals two years ago, before a narrow miss (fifth) last term. With Michael Leitch back as captain, a second rower in Kiwi-born Warner Dearns that New Zealand would kill to have back, as well as the winning All Black mentality of Mo’unga, and his test teammate Shannon Frizell, Blackadder has never been better armed. Is this his time?

Lood’s Career-Long Goal

Sentiment rarely plays a part in professional sport, in what is often a cold hearted and calculating, process driven business. This can be so in South African rugby, where ruthlessness is an embedded quality on – and sometimes away – from the field. It has been a key ingredient in the Springboks’ on-going success.

Even so, observers would have to be particularly cold hearted not to have the warm ‘fuzzies’ should Lood de Jager get the Japanese title that so narrowly eluded him last year. The big South African, who has been jumping out of his skin this season, joined a Wild Knights outfit that hadn’t lost a game in five years, and promptly experienced defeats, both at home breaking Saitama’s 47-game unbeaten run, and then by two points in the final as the back-to-back champions were denied a title threepeat.

This disappointment paled in comparison to what was to come though as a rare
heart disorder, thankfully treatable, was discovered early on in South Africa’s international campaign. It cost him the Rugby World Cup, but the personable second rower has made it back, and been one of the stars of Saitama’s run to a fourth straight final.

De Jager has already won his most important battle regardless of Sunday’s result, and
world rugby is all the better for it.

The Magnificent Seven?

After finishing seventh in the first year of the Top League in 2003, the Wild Knights endured four defeats in the tournament final before finally breaking through for their maiden title after an unbeaten campaign in the 2010-11 season.

By the time the Top League era ended in 2021, the club had added a further four titles to the collection – 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2021 – which the team then backed up in 2022 with number six after taking out the maiden title of Japan Rugby League One. With six wins and five defeats in title games following last year’s agonizing two-point loss to Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay, the six-time champions will be desperate to avoid levelling up those numbers.

Japan’s magic million

After reaching a combined million spectators across its first two seasons, the first of which was heavily impacted by Covid-19, Japan Rugby League One has hit a major milestone in its third edition, topping one million spectators for a single season.

The league surpassed the mark in the final round of the regular season, adding over 30,000 to the figure with the first round of the Replacement Battles, along with the Division One semi-finals last weekend.

With Sunday’s final being hosted by the 68,000 capacity National Stadium, which attracted 43,000 for the corresponding game last year, the league is well placed to finish a highly successful season having attracted 1,100,000 spectators, 350,000 more than attended last year