Mid-season update from Japan

With the Top League currently on a mid-season break, it is the perfect opportunity to give an update on the season so far.

After eight league games, reigning champions Suntory Sungoliath, featuring two of the League's most influential imports in the shape of Australian 100 Test legend George Smith and South African lynchpin Fourie du Preez, once again sit proudly at the top of the pile.

Their speed game, based on rapid ruck ball and relentless runners challenging the gainline, has produced an average of just under five tries per game as opposition defences have struggled to stem the tide.

Just below them, the race is hotting up to claim a top four berth that guarantees a semi-final playoff spot in the same post-season system used in the English Aviva Premiership.

It is mostly going according to the form books. But perhaps the biggest exception this year has been the failure of 2010/11 Champions Panasonic Wild Knights to live up to the expectation that they could be the team to once again loosen Suntory and Toshiba's stranglehold on the Top League. Those two sides have won seven titles between them over the last eight years.

Their chances were predictably hyped-up as they won the race to secure the services of Sonny Bill Williams. Yet in reality, it was their pre-season form without their mega-money talisman that informed many insiders' prediction that they were serious contenders.

With Williams now injured it will be interesting to see if they can rely on their seven current Japanese internationals to improve consistency and push for a play-off spot in the top four from their current position of fifth.

Former Wild Knight, Jaque Fourie has continued to impress with new side Kobe as he has led them to second in the table with a prolific 11 tries in only eight games, highlighting why Heyneke Meyer was so keen to retain the experienced centre in Springbok colours this year.

Traditional powerhouse Toshiba, a side that could be described as a Japanese version of Leicester, also remain in the hunt just below Kobe in the table. As a team that has won five championships in the last eight years and, are currently joint-top try scorers in the competition alongside Suntory, they are difficult to see past as play-off contenders.

Jerry Collins' Yamaha are in pole position for the final play-off slot just above Williams' Panasonic in fourth.

Which brings us back to our own mixed fortunes here at Ricoh Black Rams.

After a tough start that included losses to three of the top teams in our opening fixtures, we have re-gathered and gained great momentum, sitting seventh in the standings.

In bagging 19 points from a possible 20 in the last four games, the highlight was a first victory in 10 years over Toshiba that has instilled the belief that we can challenge and beat the best teams in the country in only our fourth year in Top League.

Despite the attention that the big money signings inevitably attract, in truth the recruitment policies of the clubs in signing their Japanese players has a huge impact on the form guide.

With University players scouted and categorised into talent pools, a side like Ricoh Black Rams rarely gets the opportunity to acquire the cream of the emerging crop. Rather, they tend to sign for the sides with the best history such as Suntory and Toshiba, who then end up with the deepest rosters.

For mid-to-lower-league teams, even one or two injuries to crucial players has the potential to derail their league campaign due to a crippling lack of
strength in depth despite the huge squad numbers.

Rugby training in Japan is still very much based in the amateur culture though top professional coaches are starting to make a difference.

We are currently taking advantage of a one month mid-season break and addressing the issue of squad depth by developing our entire squad with highly-individualised programs at a week-long training camp in Chiba, two hours outside of Tokyo.

We are fortunate to benefit from the expertise of former Wasps Head of Strength and Conditioning Huw Davies, who is working relentlessly to modernise our training methods in order to produce quicker, stronger and fitter athletes throughout our ranks.

As always here in Japan, the camp has been an experience of extremes. During a demanding English Premiership campaign, we could only dream of a mid-season break and the 18-degree sunshine that we enjoyed at the start of the week.

Yet an obstacle is seemingly never far away here, and one evening a storm completely flooded our temporary gym facility prompting a quickfire change of venue for the morning's training.

We feel the camp will provide the perfect platform for us to capitalise on the momentum of the last four games. With only five regular season games left, we hope to return to the challenge for a play-off spot full of the energy and the sort of belief that has been a hallmark of our squad's great work rate at camp.

Whilst the season looks incredibly short (at only 13 games) on paper, the huge pre-season (three months longer than that of a Premiership club) and often mindlessly long training sessions can leave many teams flagging at the business end of the season.

Culturally, it remains very difficult for any Japanese Kantoku (head coach) to break away from the traditional amateur training methods favoured in the rugby community in this country.

Yet the rewards are there, as seen in the impact that former Australia Head Coach Eddie Jones had in guiding Suntory a league and cup double last season.

We hope that under the direction of former Wasps Director of Rugby Leon Holden and the astute guidance of our young and knowledgeable Kantoku, Yamashina Hirotsugu, we can instill a new hard-edged mentality that can lead to sustained success for our inexperienced squad.

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