Japan: All-Mitsubishi Lions send slumping Asahi Beer Silver Star out of top division

When the All-Mitsubishi Lions defeated the Asahi Beer Silver Star in the Wild Card round last season it was a major upset. Lions after all were the first ever lower tier Battle 9 team to down a Super 9 side. Not just any side either. Silver Star is a two-time champion.

When the same resulted repeated itself last weekend in Yokohama however, with the Lions downing Asahi 17-6, few were surprised.

The Silver Star, despite bringing in several foreign players, went into a steep decline in terms of both results and performance, after that 2017 loss.

Defeat to Tokyo Gas (another tier 2, Battle 9 side) in the Pearl Bowl was followed by two close run games against Dentsu Caterpillars – a side that had never even been in X1 prior to this season, and a narrow victory over lowly Black Eagles.

In fact going into the playoffs, it had been over two years since Silver Star last defeated another Super 9 team.

One major problem has been the player management side. Of the six aforementioned foreigners the team has imported over the past two years, only two have seen the field and just one (RB Jonah Hodges) received any significant playing time.

All three Americans left last year without playing a single snap, and linebacker Anthony Wallace spent the entire 2018 on the sidelines waiting for a visa clearance that never came.

Just what the issue is, no one can answer clearly. Something is clearly awry as every other team has its imported players on the field within a month of arriving in Japan.

Lions RB Ryosuke Ogata Photo: Inside Sport: Japan

When Asahi Beer did get the paperwork right, the player was barely used.

QB Jared Stegman saw his minutes steadily decline over the course of the season and the Australian didn’t even see the field in the playoffs.

It’s doubtful he could have much of a difference anyway as Lions thoroughly outplayed their more illustrious opponents.

While the score might only have been 17-6, at no point in the game did it feel like Silver Star would be able to overturn the early deficit.

A couple of stalled drives that ended in field goals did allow Asahi Beer to make it 7-6 at half time but when a punt hit one of their players and was recovered by the Lions inside the red zone in the third quarter it seemed to suck all energy out of a sideline that had been pumping itself up for a fightback.

Hodges was Silver Star’s main threat, as he has been all season, but the Lions knew that two and defenders flowed to him in numbers whenever the ball came near.

The USD man actually ended up with slightly more receiving yards (66) than rushing (50). When you realize he actually had one 61-yard run and 6 more rushes for minus 11 yards it shows you just how ineffective the offense was.

Don’t feel too sorry for Jonah though. A few days after the game Hodges was back in the States, sitting courtside at a basketball game chatting with Stephen Curry. A world away from a rainy Yokohama that.

The weather always meant that the game would be played mostly on the turf and so it proved. All Mitsubishi rush for 272 yards to Asahi’s 71 and that really was where the game was decided.

Lions now move on to a quarterfinal date with Fujitsu Frontiers. They’ll be massive underdogs against the champions but in effect they have already achieved their main target this season – actually the one they have had for several years now.

All Mitsubishi, by virtue of their wild card win, move up to the new restructured top division of Japanese football. The eight team, closed championship, group gets underway next season and will be called X1 Super.

It will be the Lions first time playing in the top tier.

Silver Star for their part find themselves demoted to the second division along with two other former champions, Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers and Lixil Deers.

With only one team at that level getting a shot at promotion next season it doesn’t figure to get any easier  for Asahi Beer.