"Building Towards the Next Season: A Game That Counts"

Toyota Verblitz secured a victory on May 5th in the 16th round of League One against Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo at the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium with a score of 45-18, concluding the season in 7th place with 9 wins and 7 losses. It was Children's Day, and this match at Chichibunomiya marked the 96th game of League One, concluding the regular season.

Black Rams, as always, put the emphasis on breakdowns. Verblitz initiated the scoring through a try by Yuichiro Wada from a line-out maul in the 3rd minute. However, thereafter, the green jersey struggled in the physical collision, failing to sustain their attacks. Despite moving the ball, errors crept in at the last pass, preventing the team from accumulating points. The first half ended with a score of 12-8.

In the 7th minute of the second half, Aaron Smith replaced Kaito Shigeno. It was Smith's first game at Chichibunomiya this season, and his last game pairing with Beauden Barrett, drawing a crowd of almost full capacity, 16,951 people, who cheered fervently from the stands. The All Blacks duo elevated the game's tempo in the midfield. In the 17th minute, Smith took the ball out from a mid-field scrum, and Siosaia Fifita drove straight towards the goal line. Genki Sudo received the ball to secure the try. It was a swift and coordinated try. Following that, the momentum of the game started to flow, with Masato Furukawa and Aaron Smith both scoring consecutive tries. Verblitz clinched the victory with a score of 45-18, concluding this season's games.

"We were leading 13-12 until the 60th minute. But Aaron Smith made the difference in the last  20 minutes," said Black Rams head coach, Peter Hewat. Smith, who had been coming in during the second half since the last game, was the game-changer. "In this heat, all the players worked hard to wing the game. Regardless of the ranking, I think it was a meaningful game," said Captain Kazuki Himeno. It was a challenging match where the outcome didn't affect the rankings. Captain Himeno addressed his teammates, saying, "Let's make this a match for the next season."

The final ranking in the regular season was 7th. Although Toyota secured 9 wins, the line for the top 4 was at 10 wins. It was a season where the team painfully felt the weight of one victory. Captain Himeno reflected on the inconsistency in the team's performance in the press conference two days prior, saying, "There were ups and downs." Himeno added, “There isn't just one cause. It’s our mentality. It’s us not functioning well as a team. There are things we need to look at in our training sessions. We can’t just say it’s because of this”.

Barrett, who will be returning home after this season, said, "Rather than changing the team by my involvement, I've tried to blend in. While my position and experience may have influenced the team, I've tried to use the team’s strengths. “Barrett himself was sidelined due to injury in the mid-season and the team started to click in the latter half of the season. He highlighted what would be necessary for the team to make it to the top 4 in the upcoming seasons. "Consistency. Depth in the player pool. Top teams have a deep pool of players, and they mature with the same members. The team has its DNA, and the players believe in it and commit to it,” Barrett pointed out.

Taichi Takahashi, who strived to be the top try scorer, unfortunately, couldn't add to his tally. He ended with 13 tries, ranking 4th. In the 41st minute of the first half, Charlie Lawrence created the opportunity for Takahashi to score a try. However, this was denied due to obstruction before that, upon review by the TMO. "It's disappointing. Masato also scored two tries, and so I wish I had been closer to those opportunities. I need to keep polishing my skills," Takahashi said, vowing to try again next season.

After the match, departing staff and players were announced. Ben Herring, who led the team for two years as head coach, along with Masato Furukawa and Kenta Fukuda, bid farewell to the team. The next season will begin with Ian Foster as the new coach. "Our dream is to win League One. We know our vision. We’re headed in the right direction. What is needed is consistency and effort,” said Captain Himeno. The leader, who started in all 16 matches and consistently motivated his teammates from the front, has his eyes on the next season.




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