Japan Top League set for Aussie 'mate versus mate' clash
Japan is set for its own mini version of State of Origin’s famous “mate versus mate” after the Panasonic Wild Knights and Toyota Verblitz won their respective quarter-finals in the Top League rugby championship.
The Robbie Deans-coached Wild Knights, featuring five players with Australian connections, beat the Canon Eagles 32-17 at Kumagaya and will now face off against a Toyota side that boasts Michael Hooper and Kieran Read in Osaka.
Toyota came from behind to shade the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes 33-29 in the competition’s opening quarter-final at the weekend after trailing for much of the match.
Suntory Sungoliath and the Kubota Spears round out the semi-final picture, with the Spears earning their spot following a dramatic 23-21 win over the Kobelco Steelers in Shizuoka on Sunday.
Beaten by Kobe in the last Top League final two years ago, the Spears avenged that defeat despite playing the final 51 minutes with 14 men after Bernard Foley was red-carded for a dangerous tackle.
After contacting the head of Kobe No.8 Lui Naeata, the former Wallabies flyhalf seems unlikely to be available to play Suntory, who gained a free pass to the league’s penultimate weekend after the Ricoh Black Rams were forced to withdraw due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the club.
While Hooper never led the Wallabies on Deans’ watch, he was introduced to Test rugby as a 20-year-old by the New Zealander – five years after the former Crusaders coach had promoted the 21-year-old future All Blacks captain Read into Super Rugby with the Christchurch-based side in 2007.
Toyota is coached by the ex-NSW Waratahs assistant Simon Cron, whose uncle Mike played alongside the Panasonic boss in club rugby in Christchurch, before going on to coach the All Blacks scrum.
The role of Deans’ former 2IC in Canterbury, Steve Hansen, as director of rugby at Toyota, adds a further layer of familiarity to the contest.
While he is on the club’s payroll, the former All Blacks coach is not based in Japan, carrying out his duties from his home in the Central Otago tourist town of Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island.
Panasonic, who are captained by Australian loose forward Jack Cornelsen, enter Saturday’s semi-final on a 14-match unbeaten streak.
This includes a commanding 40-20 win over Toyota before last year’s competition was called off, where the Wild Knights out-scored Hansen’s men 33-7 in the second half.
Although Toyota have averaged 40 points per game this year, in the Wild Knights they face the league’s meanest defence, with Panasonic having conceded just 13 tries in nine matches.
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