International Space Station to play starring role in Top League final
A rivalry that has been a stable of rugby in Japan reaches its conclusion on Sunday when Sean McMahon’s Suntory Sungoliath take on Robbie Deans’s Panasonic Wild Knights in the last Top League final.
While global knowledge of the league has grown through its lifetime, interest in the decider is quite literally out of this world.
The final seconds to kick-off will be beamed in from the International Space Station, counted down by the station’s commander, Japanese astronaut Akihito Hoshide.
With the league going fully professional next year, the game is the closing chapter of a semi-professional format that has operated since 2003.
Suntory and Panasonic have shared nine of the 19 titles, with the Sungoliath twice edging the Wild Knights in finals.
Deans, who has been associated with the Wild Knights since the 2013-14 success, is bidding to add a fourth Top League to five Super Rugby titles.
The former Wallabies and Crusaders coach presides over a squad with a heavy Australian influence.
Heenan, who has been at the club for 14 years, could be playing the final match of a career that, while significant in its achievements, has largely been out of the sight of his homeland.
Suntory is missing former Wallabies vice-captain Samu Kerevi due to injury, but the final will give his compatriots McMahon and Harry Hockings the chance to showcase their wares in case Wallabies coach Dave Rennie decides he needs either in preparation for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
While he often treads a fine line, McMahon’s destructive ability at the breakdown is key, with the former Test flanker’s ability to slow down opposition ball thwarting Kubota in last week’s semi-final.
Hockings and English lock Tom Savage have also been a key part of Suntory’s dominance this year.
Their battle against Heenan and the Wild Knights’ England Test second row, George Kruis, will be critical to the outcome.
Suntory have averaged 58 points per game and in Beauden Barrett (162) has the competition’s leading point-scorer.
The final is his last chance to show why he should be the flyhalf when the All Blacks assemble in July.
Panasonic boasts the league’s most miserly defence, having conceded just 16 tries in 10 matches.
Their attack is led by Japanese winger Kenki Fukuoka, who has bagged 13 tries, including two hat-tricks.
The 28-year-old plays the final 80 minutes of his career at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, before walking away to fast-track medical studies as Japan struggles under the weight of COVID-19.
While grim reminders of the of the pandemic are ever present, and only a small crowd will attend, Fukuoka is providing a feel-good factor.
It is a story the populace has embra ced to the extent that most of Japan will be willing the World Cup star to success.
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