Finally, the NTT Japan Rugby League One 2022-23 play-off tournament has come to the final game. The final game, held on May 20th at the national stadium, was the game between previous champions, Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Kubota Spears Tokyo Bay, going for their first win.
Feeling the Growing Popularity of Rugby
The third-place play-off game, held the day before was a match under aggressive rain, but this day was a pleasant early summer day with blue skies. Fans gathered around the stadium from as early as two hours before the match, waiting for the game to begin.
Fans could not see the monument of the Olympic rings over the tall fence during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games since spectators were not allowed. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed for the better, fans line up to take photos along with the rugby-ball statue that has been newly placed next to it.
The sight of fans lining up to buy Wild Nights’ merchandise or holding a cup of beer and a sausage that they bought at a food cart touches me and makes me feel joy that fans can finally fully enjoy sports.
41,794 spectators filled the stadium which is the largest amount of people that have come to see the League One match! The total of spectators over the whole season has increased from last year too, from 487,047 to 745,311 people.
Even if we ignore the outbreak of COVID-19, it can be said that the 2019 Rugby World Cup held in Japan, and the upcoming 2023 Rugby World Cup in France are big contributors to the increase of Rugby fans and spectators.
The Excitement the Opening Act Brings
In front of the gates where the athletes appear from, Mr. Sakurai Sho who became the Japan Rugby Ambassador to increase popularity for Japanese athletes in the 2023 Rugby World cup, shows up and excites fans.
When Mr. Sakurai holds up the trophy for the winner of this match, the stands are filled with elation for the final game.
Both teams have lined up now and it is time for the National Anthem. Singer-songwriter, Anly will be the singer.
While listening to Anly’s soothing voice echo throughout the National Stadium, the athletes’ faces are shown on the electronic billboard, which makes me feel as if I were watching the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The national anthem is now over, and the athletes spread into their corresponding positions. Finally, the NTT Japan Rugby League One 2022-23 final has begun.
A Tension-Filled Game -the First Half
It is finally the big match! The stadium is filled with cheering vices, and since the beginning of the game, both teams are kicking the ball fighting over their territories.
The game goes on without a winning hit, but at the 10-minute mark, the Wild Knights earn a penalty goal (PG) with the not-roll-away penalty. There is only one candidate for the kicker! Riki Matsuda, stand-off (SO) who received player of the match (POM) for succeeding all nine kicks in the semi-finals against the Yokohama Canon Eagles.
Matsuda is expected to become a member of the Japanese team for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. He stands in front of the goal. Not only Wild Knights’ fans but everyone in the stadium must have thought “the Wild Knights are going to score the first three points.”
After placing the ball in its usual place, Matsuda kicks it high up in the air! Surprisingly, the ball crosses the goal line without going through the poles. His attempt has failed.
PGs are never easy, but I felt the tension of the finals seeing Matsuda’s kick fail.
At 12 minutes, Spears’ scrum-half (SH) Kazuhiro Taniguchi sends the ball behind the opponent’s defense, the ball slips through Wild Knights’ full-back (FB) Ryuji Noguchi, and Taniguchi himself succeeds to catch the ball. What a super play!
The ball is then passed onto center (CTB) Ryan Crotty, and wing (WTB) Haruto Kida is the player to receive the ball at the 22m line. From there, Kida accelerates and runs towards the left side-line goal!
Now, everyone at the stadium including Wild Knights’ fans is watching Kida as he rushes, while thinking “Spears is the team that is going to score first!” However, something blue gets in Kida’s way at full speed! Kida attempts to stretch his hand towards the goal line while being moved outside the sideline.
The athlete who tackled Kida is Wild Knights’ WTB, Marika Koroibete! Koroibete, who has been gathering attention for being a possible member of the Australian team for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, succeeded in making a try with his impressive agility and speed at the semi-final play-off. Both his defense and offense skills are outstanding, and a big round of applause can be heard from the stands.
The tie-breaker of the game was SO Bernard Foley, who has played in the World Cup twice as a member of the Australian team, at 20 minutes into the game. The top scorer of this season utilizes the PG his team earns with the not-roll-away penalty.
Foley’s personality is usually bright and bubbly. He has a humorous character and says things like “Is everyone an orange army?” in Japanese at the interview before the finals.
His kick practices paid off, and without losing against the pressure of the finals, he calmly succeeded in scoring the goal. Finally, the scores start to move, and Spears are in the lead at 3-0!
Additionally, at 26 minutes, Spears obtain another PG with an off-side penalty, and the player to kick, is once again, Foley. Again, he succeeds and now the Spears have widened the gap, at 6-0.
Wild Knights are making mistakes of lineout, passes, and scrums that haven’t been seen before. At 34 minutes, Matsuda scores a goal with a PG, and the gap becomes smaller at 6-3, but for the third time, at 38 minutes, Foley’ s PG scores, and the gap widens again. The first half is now over, without the Wild Knights scoring any more points.
The Crowd at its Maximum Heat with the Back-and-Forth Offenses and Defenses! -The Second Half
The second half is again filled with kicks from both teams. Although the crowd surmised that the scores wouldn’t change, Spears in the lead make their goal. At six minutes, they obtain another PG, and for the fourth time in a row, Foley succeeds. At this point, Spears looked like they would become the champions at 12-3.
Wild Knights, wanting to change the flow, put in hooker (HO), Shota Horie at 10 minutes, hoping to make chances to score. Then at 18 minutes, the Wild Knights carry the ball into the goal-line from lineout and Horie scores the first try of this match! SO, Takuya Yamazawa succeeds in another PG, and their score comes closer to Spears’ at 12-10.
Wild Knights, having obtained back their strengths, score another try with Tomoki Osada jumping into the goal area! Previous winners, Wild Knights have flipped the score at 12-15.
The Wild Knights moved on to the finals with only one game lost, and fans praise their incredible power.
The match has come to the final 15 minutes, and the score gap is only 3 points! Fans glue their eyes to the thrilling run of the play, with the next team to score getting closer to becoming the winner. They shout and cheer at each fail or success.
Then at 19 minutes, an unbelievable play jumps out! At the scrum near the half-way line, SH Shinobu Fujiwara selects a high punt instead of a pass. Players of both teams rush to get under the ball.
Did Wild Knights’ Noguchi catch the ball!? No, the player who grabbed the ball is Spears’ WTB, Koga Nezuka! Spears tackle until the five-meter line, and from there, Fujiwara passes the ball again. The player to catch it is captain and CTB, Harumichi Tatekawa.
“Honestly, it (the decision of offending) was a decision made right on the spot. While our opponents were waiting for the ball right in front, I felt that Kida was telling me “Give it to me”. At first, that option didn’t exist, but I decided to go for it.” Tatekawa, who chose a kick pass said at the interview after the match.
At the sideline where nobody but Kida was standing, he catches the ball carefully, and makes a try, leading the game to 17-15!
Staff, athletes at the bench, Frans Ludeke HC and the orange army show their happiness with smiles.
However, the score gap is only two points. Since Wild Knights can win with a single PG, they attack and put pressure on Spears. Spears’ defense players are careful because they cannot let their opponents score, but the Wild Knights have obtained a big chance.
They connect small passes, and confuse Spears’ defense which leads to the appearance of Marika Koroibete!
While getting close to Spears’ FB, Gerhard van den Heever, he sends out a no-look pass to Noguchi! Spectators thought that he would go straight to the side-line, but unfortunately, he misses the pass and the Wild Knights lose their chance.
With only one minute left, the Spears guide the ball through the scrum, and slowly moves little by little towards the goal.
While the Spears continue their tackle, the Wild Knights work hard to make a jackal, but then the horn of the last one play sounds. Foley kicks the ball out of the touchline and it’s a no-side! Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay have won for the first time since the establishment of the club.
The athletes hugging letting their emotions explode, the athletes kneeling and crying tears of happiness, the orange army watching this scene, all share their victory in different ways.
The athlete who was rewarded POM was Tatekawa, who kicked the ball that reversed the game. Being awarded it, he finally showed a smile. After that, \20 million was awarded to the Wild Knights for 2nd place, and \50 million and a trophy was awarded to the Spears for winning 1st place. The national stadium was filled with cheers for both teams at the winning ceremony.
The Happiness After a Long and Tough Road
Head coach (HC) of Spears since 2016, Frans Ludeke from South Africa said, “After seven years, with the help of our company and families, we have finally achieved what we wanted to. Our win is the result of what we have built.” He spoke as he reflected on the path he had come with the athletes.
After retiring at the semifinals twice, the Spears finally won and when he was asked for a comment he said, “this feeling is so special. We were able to get the desired results by doing the basic things for 80 minutes.”
Harumichi Tatekawa, who has also been captain of the team since 2016, commented while choosing his words carefully. “When we won, I thought “oh, we won”. My emotions didn’t explode, and even when I received the trophy, I was more emotional than happy. Perhaps the feeling of winning will become more real as time passes.”
Tatekawa appreciated all the support for the people around him continually, saying, “We were able to win because of everyone forming part of the orange army. Since our rough times at the top-east (the former top league), people at our company, OBs, and staff have supported us. I hope that we have given back what we have received even just a little.”
“Both teams made today’s game the way it was. I would like to celebrate while showing respect towards the Wild Knights. I was always the person to watch another person holding the trophy, and I never imagined myself to have the trophy in my hands.”, he said, while reflecting on today’s amazing game.
The Champions’ Pride after Showing their Utmost Power
Wild Knights’ director Robbie Deans brought a laugh to the interviewers by saying, “I don’t want to reflect on today’s game. Do I have to?” After saying so, he commented, “Today, we weren’t calm enough. Our athletes are definitely not losers. They have achieved a lot in the past, and they will continue to learn and grow. We will come back to this stage again. Some athletes will probably go to the world cup. I think these types of experiences can be utilized too.” He spoke about his trust to the athletes and their future progress.
“Today, there were a lot of mistakes, and they play we did, was not one that deserved to win. The pressure of the Spears was tough, but our panic was the main problem. There was a time where mistakes birthed mistakes, and it was like a chain,” said Atsushi Sakate, captain of the Wild Knights.
“We play rugby by connecting the ball with all of us. However, we lost today. But still, we haven’t lost our confidence. We are not a team that has to change the way they play,” he said. “I was able to grow as a captain, and our team was able to upgrade because of this match. Thank you again, for supporting us this year!” he exited the interviewing space with a fresh smile.
Going Beyond the Game
“After the semifinals, we were having continuous tough games, and the athletes were fighting hard,” said Spears’ PR, Youta Kamimori, who made a try in the semifinals against Sungoliath.
“We were able to get the results of our hard work, with switching quickly between offense and defense. The movement of the backs was good, and we were able to play in a desirable setting,” he said, while reflecting on their win with a smile.
Malcolm Marx, relaxing after the end of the winning ceremony said, “the athletes for the South Africa team for the 2023 Rugby World Cup haven’t been announced yet, but in order to be an adequate member I want to become more popular.”
In the one-week short break before the training camp, Marx returned to South Africa and said that he received energy from his family back at home. Especially, when he was asked about reuniting with his beloved daughter Kenna, he answered, “She is special to me. I’ll receive power and energy again by seeing her soon.”
Lood de Jager, also from South Africa said, “Compared to the style of rugby in Europe, which is slow, the speedy style of attacking-rugby in Japan was really fresh to me and I learnt a lot from it. While I wait for the South African members to be announced, I want to take the time to relax and recover.”
The NTT Japan Rugby League One 2022-23 finished with the result of Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay with their first ever win.
However, rugby will be heating up even more!
In the 2023 Rugby World Cup, athletes who played outstanding roles in the League One will appear in Sakura pattern Jerseys.
Also, athletes from around the world, introduced in Journal-ONE, will participate in their respective country’s team and fight for a win.
The rugby year of 2023, will without a doubt, heat us up even more than the “ONE TEAM” fever in 2019. Rugby has become a popular sport in Japan. In order to feel the excitement with your own skin, how about watching a rugby game at your nearest stadium in the next season?