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McKenzie's Sungoliath fire as Deans' champion Wild Knights take double blow

By Tom Vinicombe
Damian McKenzie. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

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The opening week of the new season of Japan’s Rugby League One has resulted in mixed fortunes for last year’s finalists.

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In 2021, Robbie Deans’ Saitama Wild Knights scored a well-taken 31-26 win in the Top League final over the Tokyo Sungolaith but their fortunes have reversed in the first round of the newly re-branded League One competition, with the global pandemic again playing its part in proceedings.

The Wild Knights were set to kick off the tournament against the Kubota Spears on Friday but after multiple positive cases of Covid were recorded in the Wild Knights’ camp, the game was called off and the Spears were awarded a bonus-point win. It has since been confirmed that the Wild Knights will also have to forfeit their second round game against the Green Rockets, which will put last year’s champions seriously disadvantaged heading into their new ‘opening’ game against the Yokohama Eagles in Round 3.

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The Kobe Steelers took on the Shining Arcs in the opening round of Japan’s League One competition.
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The Kobe Steelers took on the Shining Arcs in the opening round of Japan’s League One competition.

The Sungoliath, meanwhile, may have lost Beauden Barrett back to New Zealand after his sole season with the team in 2021 but in Damian McKenzie they have an excellent replacement – and it was McKenzie who, in his first act as a Sungoliath, earned his side a breakdown penalty against the Brave Lupus on Saturday.

McKenzie nailed seven attempts on goal throughout the match and sparked numerous attacks from the backfield but it was Australia Sean McMahon who won plaudits for his try-scoring, with the recently recalled Wallaby managing three touchdowns throughout the game.

The high-scoring match ultimately finished 60-46 in favour of the Sungoliath.

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Other opening round results saw Israel Folau make his return to the rugby field for the Shining Arcs, with his side earning a surprise 24-23 win over the Kobe Steelers, the Eagles scoring a comfortable 33-12 win over the Green Rockets, and the Black Rams accounting for the Red Hurricanes, 43-22.

The Wild Knights-Spears match wasn’t the only fixture impacted by the pandemic, with the match between the Toyota Verblitz and the Shizuoka Blue Revs also called off due to ‘safety reasons’. No points have been awarded for that match as this stage, however, with game likely to be rescheduled for the future.

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