JAPAN: XLeague playoff race tightening up

Round Five of the XLeague regular season in Japan ended with a bang when Lixil Deers, as they have so many times in the past, stormed back late with three TDs to stun IBM Big Blue 27-26 in a game that was played in a constant downpour. The win ensured that Lixil would join IBM in the postseason. Big Blue, after looking unstoppable early in the season have now lost two of three and are reeling.

That game capped off an exciting week of action in Japan in which unbeaten Panasonic Impulse stretched their record to 5-0 by overcoming a tough Obic Seagulls side that had chances to win the game in the fourth quarter but just couldn’t capitalize on them. Impulse QB Benjamin Anderson threw for just 87 yards on a Mitch Trubisky-like 5 completions, but was deadly on the ground, carrying the ball 17 times for 154 yards and a TD. Anderson, in his first year with the team, has brought an X factor to an already loaded Panasonic squad.

Another late week five win saw history made. Fuji Xerox Minerva AFC won two straight games in X1 for the first time ever when they scored a touchdown with just six seconds left to edge Bulls 23-16. Minerva had allowed the winless Bulls to equalize late on, but left the league’s bottom side heartbroken at the death for the second straight game. Minerva will face Nagoya Cyclones in their regular season finale and after going seven years without a top-flight win, now have a chance to get three on the trot. Bulls last chance for a victory this season comes against a team that crushed them in the spring. It’s likely they’ll still be winless when they face an X2 side in the promotion/relegation playoff.

Elsewhere Elecom Kobe Finies showed that their performance against Big Blue in round four was indeed a good indicator of the progress they have made this season. The Kansai side crushed Silver Star 35-9 to leave Asahi Beer on the brink of playoff elimination. As we’ve said elsewhere this tough Finies defense is a match for any team and their hard running ball-possession game gives them a great chance to cause an upset in the knockout rounds.

Fujitsu Frontiers rebounded from a close loss to Panasonic in round four to ease past Asahi Soft Drinks Silver Star 44-13. In a game that was over by halftime veteran tailback Gino Gordon ran wild, racking up 266 yards on 17 carries. The win put Fujitsu into the second seed slot ahead of the Japan XBowl rematch with Obic Seagulls on October 29th . The game illustrated that the gap between the top teams and those below them comes down to top line talent and coaching. Challengers have some really good players but Fujitsu have a lot of them and they are being coached by men who have experience at the highest level of the game. Football, as we all know, is a game of inches and winning and losing often comes down to just a few plays. As well as Gordon, Fujitsu have the XLeague’s best wideout (Clark Nakamura) and one of its top QBs (Colby Cameron). Their OL is massive, well trained, deep and plays with an edge that reflects Keven Lightner (their coach)’s intensity. Asahi Soft Drinks have some really good players on defense but not enough to stick with a team like Fujitsu over a whole game.

Fujitsu Frontiers OL coach is fiery.

Nojima Sagamihara Rise had a facile win over As One Black Eagles. The game was more notable for the field itself, than anything that occurred on it. A typhoon sweeping across Japan meant there were large pools of water all over Expo Flash Field. The win though means Rise now head into their final regular season game against Panasonic with a chance to knock that very same team out of the top slot in the seedings.

Meiji Yasuda also kept their slim playoff dreams alive with a 16-0 win over Metropolitan Police Eagles. At 1-3 Pirates were looking dead in the water but if they win in week six and both Cyclones and Black Eagles lose they make the wildcard round.

They’ll be joined there by All Mitsubishi Lions who cemented their spot with a 16-0 win over Tokyo Gas. The Creators started the season with two straight wins but now have dropped three in a row and even if they manage to overcome Pirates next week they’ll need help to make the playoffs. The shutout was particularly surprising as Tokyo Gas had been tipped to down the shaky looking Lions. Credit to All Mitsubishi though. Even without playing well they top the Battle 9 standings and are on roll ahead of their final game, which will be against Super 9 team Asahi Beer Silver Star.

Nagoya Cyclones overcame Club HawkEye for the second time this season. The 23-13 victory in Osaka put central Japan’s only X1 side in poll position for a wildcard slot. Win against Minerva and they’ll join Lions in the playoffs and eliminate Black Eagles, Pirates and Creators in the process. Cyclones schedule is arguably the easiest in the league and it’s hard to see them even be competitive in, never mind that wildcard game if they do make it.

All photos: Inside Sport: Japan