All Blacks star Beauden Barrett is set to finally make his long-awaited Top League debut for Suntory Sungoliath against Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Minami-Ku on Sunday.
Barrett has been named to start at first-five in what will be his first official appearance for the Japanese club since joining on a sabbatical deal from New Zealand Rugby and the Blues at the end of last year.
The two-time World Rugby Player of the Year’s debut has been a long time coming, with the Top League postponing its season for a month after three clubs – Suntory, Toyota Verblitz and Canon Eagles – suffered a COVID-19 outbreak within its squads.
However, the competition is ready to get underway this weekend, and Barrett will take to the field alongside some notable names for Suntory.
Forming a strong halves partnership with Japanese international Yutaka Nagare, Barrett headlines a powerhouse backline that also includes former Wallabies midfielder Samu Kerevi and ex-Blues and Highlanders wing Tevita Li.
In the pack, former Reds lock Harry Hockings will kit up in the second row, while tighthead prop Sam Talakai – formerly of the Waratahs, Reds and Rebels – gets the nod at No. 3.
In an added twist, Barrett will mark his former All Blacks teammate Colin Slade, who is also on his Top League debut after moving to the Dynaboars from French club Pau last year.
Slade will be joined by fellow ex-All Black Jackson Hemopo, who will start at lock as he enters his second season in the Top League.
Slade and Hemopo aren’t the only New Zealanders in the Mitsubishi lineup.
Former Hurricanes and Crusaders loose forward Heiden Bedwell-Curtis will start at No. 8, ex-Blues and Sunwolves midfielder Michael Little is at centre, and former Blues utility back Matt Vaega has been selected at fullback.
Well-traveled utility back James Wilson – who has previously played across New Zealand, Australia, France and England – is also on the bench.
Elsewhere, Barrett’s All Blacks and former Hurricanes halves partner TJ Perenara will make his debut at halfback for NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes against the Canon Eagles on Sunday.
Like Barrett, Perenara is on sabbatical in Japan, and will square off against the likes of Springboks centre Jesse Kriel, ex-Highlanders cult hero Fumiaki Tanaka, former Sunwolves speedster Hosea Saumaki, Brave Blossoms pivot Yu Tamura and former Chiefs and Highlanders utility forward Jesse Parete at Machida Stadium in Tokyo.
In the other Top League match on Sunday, Hino Red Dolphins – featuring ex-All Blacks halfback Augustine Pulu and former Chiefs and Rebels playmaker Jack Debreczeni – will host Kwagga Smith’s Yamaha Jubilo in Osaka.
The 2021 Top League season kicks-off on Saturday when NTT Communications Shining Arcs take on Honda Heat in Tokyo at 1pm on Saturday [local time].
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