While New Zealand and Australia’s Super Rugby seasons have been mostly unaffected by the ongoing global pandemic, Australasian players based in Japan have been faced with a number of disruptions.
The season was delayed by over a month due to various outbreaks across Japan at the beginning of January while the vast majority of matches have been played under strict crowd limits.
The latest consequence of the pandemic, however, is perhaps the one that will leave the most people frustrated.
A COVID breakout amongst Ricoh Black Rams players following their victory over Toshiba Brave Lupus has forced the Rams to forfeit their quarter-final showdown with Suntory Sungoliath.
As a result, the likes of Suntory players Beauden Barrett, Samu Kerevi, Tevita Li and Sean McMahon could now go three weeks without playing a match due to the two-week break between the best of 16 round and the quarter-finals of this year’s competition.
It will be a massive blow for Elliot Dixon, Isaac Lucas, Ben Funnell at their Ricoh teammates, who overcame a mid-season slump to win three victories on the trot and would have entered the quarter-finals with plenty of belief in their abilities to upset the more fancied Suntory side.
While the Top League season is already comparatively less physical than the Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU competitions taking place at the moment, the number of cancelled matches that Suntory have missed this year will likely bode well for Beauden Barrett, who’s taking a one-season sabbatical in Japan.
Barrett’s All Blacks teammates have regularly commented on the intensity and brutality of the Aotearoa competition, with halfback Aaron Smith suggesting that he preferred the old model that incorporated teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan.
“I think if you look back over time, [the high attrition rate] is not a coincidence,” Smith recently said on the Devlin Radio Show. “Back-to-back derbies, it’s definitely got to have an impact.
“People don’t get how much harder you go against your best mate. It’s real. It’s not like saying we don’t respect the South Africans, Aussies, Jaguares, Japanese but when you play your mate every week, the collisions, the kilometres we run, it all adds up.”
The Chiefs have made 20 changes to their match-day squad for their dead rubber clash with the Blues. That's no surprise, given how important every single game of #SuperRugbyAotearoa has been up until this point. #BLUvCHI
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) April 30, 2021
Although the cancellation will be disappointing for Barrett and his teammates, it will help to ensure that the former World Rugby Player of the Year returns to New Zealand refreshed, fit and ready to fire for the international test season.
Suntory will now play the winner of the Kubota Spears and the Kobelco Steelers in the Top League semi-finals on May 16.
While Kubota can call upon the likes of Springboks Malcolm Marx and Arno Botha, as well as former All Black centre Ryan Crotty, Kobelco have perhaps the greatest contingent on foreign superstars in their squad, including Brodie Retallick, Hayden Parker, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith and Tom Franklin.
Suntory beat the Spears by 7 points in the regular season but did not come up against the Steelers. That quarter-final match will take place on May 9.
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