All Black and Wallaby-laden teams prepare to clash as Top League finals approach
The Panasonic Wild Knights and Kobelco Steelers have set up a trans-Tasman-like showdown for a top qualifying position into the Top League elimination round with convincing wins in Japan this weekend.
The Robbie Deans-coached Wild Knights routed the NEC Green Rockets 62-5 in Tokyo on Sunday to maintain top spot in the league’s white conference.
Kobe overran Yamaha Jubilo 53-22 on Saturday.
Neither side has lost a match since the 2019 season, with Panasonic’s unbeaten record now sitting on 11, during which time they have averaged 48 points per game.
Panasonic’s Aussie contingent includes former Wallaby Dan Heenan, ex-Australian under-20s representatives Dylan Riley, Esei Haangana and Semisi Tupou, alongside Queensland-educated loose forwards Jack Cornelsen and Ben Gunter.
The nine-tries-to-one win maintains Panasonic’s slender one-point advantage over Kobe on the standings ahead of the clash of the pre-season favourites next Sunday.
As well as securing top seeding from the conference for the elimination rounds which start on April 17, next weekend’s winner would most likely avoid Suntory Sungoliath until the May 23 final at the earliest.
This is an advantage worth having given the Suntory’s dominance of the red conference, which continued when they inflicted the first defeat of Wallabies captain Michael Hooper’s Japanese club career.
The Sungoliath won a thriller 39-36, with an 81st minute penalty goal by Beauden Barrett breaking the deadlock.
Suntory coach Milton Haig opted to start aggressive Australian openside Sean McMahon, to counter the presence of Hooper at the breakdown.
This meant X-factor back Samu Kerevi had to play from the bench due to the quota which allows just two foreign Test players on the field at any time.
While McMahon scored the game’s opening try, the move looked to have backfired.
Toyota romped to a 26-12 halftime lead before Suntory, who’d won their previous four matches by an average of 54 points, wore Hooper’s men down after the break.
Barrett’s was one of two last-minute kicks that won games on Saturday, with Japan Test flyhalf Yu Tamura also kicking side his to victory, as the Canon Eagles pipped Damien Hill’s Ricoh Black Rams 31-28.
Bernard Foley only played the last 20 minutes as his unbeaten Kubota side warmed up for Saturday’s showdown with Suntory by beating the Mitsubishi Dynaboars 32-17.
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