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Mo'unga back-up shines in his absence while Barrett magic secures win

Beauden Barrett of Toyota Verblitz talks to during the NTT Japan Rugby League One match between Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Toyota Verblitz at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium on January 06, 2024 in Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

Richie Mo’unga might have been at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium for today’s Fuchu Derby in Japan Rugby League One, but he did not provide the star turn.

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Instead, the All Black, who has been back in New Zealand on bereavement leave, watched on admiringly as his stand in, Hayata Nakao, gave a performance worthy of his more illustrious teammate during Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo’s convincing 36-27 win over Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath.

The one-cap Brave Blossom had a hand in four of Toshiba’s five tries, as well as kicking five from six, as Brave Lupus completed a season double over their fierce west Tokyo rivals for the first time since 2010-11.

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Nakao twice created the space for tries with clever passes, while inside centre Nicholas McCurran’s first half score came after the 29-year-old had opened up Suntory with a gem of a pop kick over the advancing defensive line.

The Toshiba flyhalf also initiated the attack that led to his side’s final try, which was the second of the afternoon for Kiwi winger Michael Collins.

Fixture
Japan Rugby League One
Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo
36 - 27
Full-time
Tokyo Sungoliath
All Stats and Data

While Suntory dominated for large periods, most notably when Toshiba were down a man late in the first half, they were harried into mistakes by unrelenting Brave Lupus defence, which forced the errors Todd Blackadder’s men were quick to seize upon.

Despite winger Seiya Ozaki scoring his fifth try from the last six derbies, and his 13th of the season, which closed Sungoliath to 17-10 at halftime, tries by Collins and winger Jone Naikabula in the 10 minutes after the break ultimately put the game out of reach.

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Brave Lupus are now confirmed in second, but will face a third derby in the semi-finals, after Toyota Verblitz beat Yokohama Canon Eagles 35-31, which means Suntory finish third.

Toyota’s win was achieved after an injury time try by fullback Taichi Takahashi.

It followed a 31-phase lead-up, much of it after the final siren, that was finally ended by a visionary kick in behind the defence by All Black Beauden Barrett that his teammate won the race for.

Verblitz can still finish fifth, but it would require Kobelco Kobe Steelers to drop their final game to Mie Honda Heat and that seems unlikely after Dave Rennie’s men showed their best side, dismantling Shizuoka Blue Revs 63-19 in Osaka.

Shizuoka had been unbeaten in five but four first half tries, one from World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea, saw Kobe race to a 28-0 halftime lead, from which there was no way back.

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Fifth remains a three-way contest, after outgoing champions Kubota Spears Funabashi’s kept themselves in the picture with a 61-24 win over Mie Honda Heat, who will feature in next month’s promotion/relegation series.

Heat had led 17-0 after 30 minutes before collapsing dramatically, conceding seven second half tries.

Although Hanazono Kintetsu Liners are similarly threatened, they were surprisingly competitive at Kumagaya, trailing the unbeaten Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights by just two at halftime, before falling 33-24.

Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo will join Honda and Kintetsu in next month’s Replacement Battle against the top three sides from Division Two, after a penalty goal in the 79th minute by ex-Northampton flyhalf James Grayson confirmed their fate by securing a vital bonus point for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars in a 31-24 defeat.

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Needing to win to have any hope of overhauling their ninth-placed rivals on the point’s table, the Black Rams dominated the first half, scoring four tries to race to a 17-point advantage.

When winger Amanaki Taiyo Lotoahea’s 58th minute try was converted, Ricoh led 31-7 and salvation appeared at hand.

It wasn’t as the Dynaboars rallied to score two tries in the remaining minutes, before Grayson’s fateful kick salvaged the log-point which ensures that the Black Rams cannot overtake them on the final weekend.

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