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'Not interested': All Blacks star Richie Mo'unga not wanted by top Japanese club

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

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One of Japan’s leading clubs says it isn’t keen on pursuing All Blacks star Richie Mo’unga despite his desire to relocate to Japan after next year’s World Cup.

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In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, Mo’unga revealed that he intends to leave New Zealand to play in Japan Rugby League One for a two-year period from 2024 onwards.

Mo’unga’s revelation comes after the 32-test first-five last week announced a one-year contract extension with New Zealand Rugby, which will keep him on Kiwi shores until the end of the 2023 World Cup.

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The 28-year-old’s comments will undoubtedly set the tongues of numerous League One clubs wagging due to his status as a five-time Super Rugby champion and three-time Super Rugby Player of the Year.

The Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights aren’t one of those clubs, though, according to their general manager Hitoshi Iijima.

Speaking in the wake of Panasonic’s title-winning League One campaign, Iijima said on Tuesday that the availability of Mo’unga doesn’t interest the Wild Knights.

Already equipped with the services of veteran pivots Rikiya Matsuda and Takuya Yamasawa, Iijima made it clear that the Wild Knights are unlikely to chase Mo’unga’s signature.

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“We already have good first-five-eighths, two outstanding first-five-eighths, so unless Richie Mo’unga turns into a beast No 8 or lock, we’re probably not interested,” Iijima said via an interpreter.

Matsuda has been a prominent figure for the Brave Blossoms since his international debut in 2016, having played four of his 29 tests during Japan’s historic run to the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals.

Yamasawa, meanwhile, impressed en route to Panasonic’s 18-12 League One final victory over Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath on Sunday.

As such, Yamasawa has won a recall into the Brave Blossoms squad for their upcoming tests against Uruguay and France, five years after he played the last of his three tests for Japan.

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The presence of those two players leaves little room at the Wild Knights for Mo’unga, whose eagerness to play in Japan on a short-term basis may also be viewed unfavourably by Panasonic.

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Iijima outlined that the Wild Knights have a preference for players who are willing to commit to the club for a long period of time rather than for only a year or two, like Mo’unga is planning.

“We tend to look at players that can commit to us for a longer term, that can be loyal to the team rather than sabbatical, short-term players. We like players that are happy to commit to us for a longer term,” Iijima said.

While the Wild Knights look an unlikely destination for Mo’unga, the Crusaders pivot has hinted at a potential move to Suntory in a transfer that would see him follow in the footsteps of All Blacks teammates Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie.

Barrett and McKenzie both failed to win silverware during their respective season-long stints with Suntory as they each fell short against Panasonic in the 2021 and 2022 finals.

That prompted Mo’unga to suggest to the New Zealand Herald that he could do what his two countrymen couldn’t and turn Suntory into League One champions.

“You look at someone like D-Mac [McKenzie] who has been able to go over there and be a huge influence,” Mo’unga said.

“It’s quite funny Baz [Barrett] was there the year before and they lost in the final. D-Mac lost in the final, too, so maybe I can take Suntory one better.”

Mo’unga is expected to start for the Crusaders in Friday’s Super Rugby Pacific quarter-final against the Reds in Christchurch after missing last week’s fixture against the Queenslanders at Orangetheory Stadium through injury.

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