Semi-finalists confirmed as Quade Cooper earns League One promotion in Japan
An array of All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks and Brave Blossoms stars will do battle for the inaugural Japan Rugby League One title after the competition’s semi-finalists were confirmed over the weekend.
Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, Kubota Spears Funasbashi-Tokyo Bay and Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo have all qualified as Division One semi-finalists following the final round of the regular season.
Suntory, Panasonic and Kubota had all confirmed their semi-final spots heading into the last weekend of action, but Toshiba were competing with Toyota Verblitz for the fourth and final playoffs spot.
However, Toshiba’s place in the top four was all but confirmed when Toyota’s must-win clash against Suntory was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak in the Verblitz squad.
As such, Springboks duo Pieter-Steph du Toit and Willie le Roux, All Blacks lock Patrick Tuipulotu and Japan star Kazuki Himeno were denied the chance to push for a semi-final berth as Suntory won all five competition to cement their top-of-the-table spot.
That means Suntory – headlined by All Blacks star Damian McKenzie and Wallabies pair Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon – will face off against Toshiba in next week’s semi-final after the Brave Lupus beat the Shizuoka Blue Revs on Sunday.
Former All Blacks Matt Todd and Seta Tamanivalu, as well as ex-Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch, all featured for Toshiba in their 33-29 victory over Springboks loose forward Kwagga Smith’s Blue Revs.
The other semi-final will see Panasonic host Kubota for a second successive week after the Wild Knights beat the Spears 35-14 on Saturday.
Wallabies wing Marika Koroibete and former England lock George Kruis featured among a plethora of Japanese internationals in the Panasonic side that overcame a Kubota team that was without ex-Wallabies pivot Bernard Foley, former All Blacks midfielder Ryan Crotty and Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx.
At the other end of the spectrum, Wallabies greats Quade Cooper and Will Genia have guided the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners to promotion Division One after helping clinch a 34-22 win over the Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars on Sunday.
The victory ensures Kintetsu finish the season as the top-ranked side from Division Two, meaning they have secured automatic promotion into League One’s top division next year.
Mitsubishi and second-ranked Mie Honda Heat will now progress to promotion-relegation fixtures against the bottom-ranked Division One sides.
Those teams are yet to be finalised after Saturday’s clash between NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes Osaka and Tokyo Black Rams was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak in the Red Hurricanes squad.
League One officials are yet to determine how the competition points for that match will be distributed between the Red Hurricanes and Black Rams, both of whom sit inside the Division One relegation zone alongside the NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu.
Should either team be granted the full five competition points, they would overtake Israel Folau’s NTT Communications Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu following their heavy 74-34 loss to the Kobelco Kobe Steelers on Sunday.
Former All Blacks fullback Ben Smith, who partnered with Springboks star Lukhanyo Am in the midfield, scored a try in the closing stages of that match to likely close out his playing career and condemn the Shining Arcs to a ninth-place finish.
That leaves Folau and his teammates, which includes former Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw, prone to dropping into the relegation zone depending on how the cancelled match between the Red Hurricanes and Black Rams is dealt with.
Elsewhere, Toyota Shuttles Industries Aichi have won promotion into next year’s Division Two after finishing this season as champions of Division Three.
The Division One semi-finals, and the inter-divisional promotion-relegation matches, will begin next weekend, with the first-ever League One final to be held on May 29.
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