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Kolbe and Cane among missing for injury ravaged Sungoliath

South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe (R) and New Zealand All Blacks captain Sam Cane (L) pose in their new uniforms following a press conference for the Japanese rugby side Suntory Sungoliath at Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu, Tokyo on November 28, 2023. (Photo by Richard A. Brooks / AFP) (Photo by RICHARD A. BROOKS/AFP via Getty Images)

Injuries to their international stars may have been a major factor in their season, but it hasn’t stopped Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, who will qualify for the Japan Rugby League One semi-finals should they beat Shizuoka Blue Revs tomorrow night.

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Star Springbok Cheslin Kolbe has twice been sidelined by injury and is missing at the moment due to a leg injury, while the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup captain Sam Cane hasn’t appeared since January due to a back problem.

The third of the club’s test trio, Wales international Gareth Anscombe, didn’t even make it to the starting line due to injury, which saw Los Pumas’ veteran Nicolas Sanchez called in, although he has barely been sighted since arriving.

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Yet five wins in the last six – with the only defeat coming after they astonishingly blew a 25-point halftime lead against Yokohama Canon Eagles – has positioned last season’s semi-finalists within a win of another appearance in the playoffs.

The finish line might be within touching distance for the back-to-back finalists from the final Top League and maiden Japan Rugby League One, but it could get complicated should Sungoliath not continue a remarkable run against their round 14 opponents, whom they have beaten in each of the last 13 meetings.

Friday’s match will be followed by the highly charged Fuchu derby against Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, while a last round date with Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay won’t be easy either, with the outgoing champions eager to sign off from a disappointing title defence with a win against an opponent they beat three-times during last season’s title run.

Fixture
Japan Rugby League One
Tokyo Sungoliath
31 - 31
Full-time
Shizuoka BlueRevs
All Stats and Data

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars won’t feature in the playoffs, but the ninth ranked outfit could still be a major player in the makeup of the top four when they meet fourth-placed Yokohama Canon Eagles on Saturday.

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A win for the Dynaboars would open the door for the chasing pack, most notably fifth-placed Kobelco Kobe Steelers.

Conversely a win by the Eagles combined with defeats for each of Kobe and Toyota Verblitz, would see the semi-final picture sorted two weeks out from the playoffs.

The Eagles have been boosted by the return of Springbok centre Jesse Kriel, who has been named on the bench for his first appearance since breaking his thumb in mid-January.

Both Kobe and Toyota have difficult assignments, with the Steelers facing the Spears, who have won on the last five occasions the two have met.

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Freed from the shackles of the title defence should Yokohama have prevailed the day before, the Spears will be aiming to finish on a high note, especially given they have dropped points in the last play of each of their last two matches.

Toyota’s task is even greater as they host a Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights side just three wins away from their third unbeaten regular season in four since rugby resumed in Japan post Covid.

While Toyota has been the centre of some big off-field news this week, with the signings of former All Black coach Ian Foster, and league star Joseph Manu, there will be no shortage of heat in the rivalry on Saturday, starting with the head coaches, Toyota’s Steve Hansen, and Saitama’s Robbie Deans.

The pair were once partners coaching in Christchurch before opposing each other some years later, firstly when Deans was on the staff as the All Blacks beat Hansen’s Wales three times, and later in Bledisloe Cup tests.

Although Hansen had the better of the Bledisloe rivalry, as part of a two-time Rugby World Cup-winning outfit, he has yet to get the better of Deans – who has won five titles in Japan – since he took over Toyota after the 2019 tournament.

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