Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper must outwit his ex-boss Robbie Deans if Verblitz are to reach Top League decider
Michael Hooper is 80 minutes away from reaching the Top League final but he is going to have to outwit his old Wallabies boss Robbie Deans – and five of his countrymen – if Toyota Verblitz are to make next weekend’s decider in Japan. The Australian captain faces the Panasonic Wild Knights in this Saturday’s opening semi-final, with the four-time champions fielding a gang of Aussies that are led by No8 Jack Cornelsen.
The Queensland-raised son of former Wallaby Greg Cornelsen will have winger Semisi Tupou, centre Dylan Riley, loose forward Ben Gunter and veteran lock forward Daniel Heenan alongside as the Wild Knights attempt to make a fifth Top League final from the past eight competitions and knockout Hooper and co.
Panasonic have already seen off former Wallaby Quade Cooper’s Kintetsu Liners in the knockout phase and were too good last weekend for the Canon Eagles, despite conceding three tries during their 32-17 victory. This represented nearly a quarter of the 13 tries let in by the league’s most miserly defence. No side has bettered 20 points against the well organised Wild Knights in their nine matches so far.
With Osaka in a state of emergency, both semi-finals will be behind closed doors. Despite big-name foreigners populating the league, Panasonic’s strength is based around the cream of local talent. Eleven Wild Knights were recently named in the Japanese squad for next month’s historic match against the British and Irish Lions. This includes the Australian-raised Cornelsen, Riley and Gunter.
By contrast, Hooper is joined at Toyota by former All Blacks skipper Kieran Read and the World Cup-winning Springboks full-back Willie le Roux, who is in South Africa’s mix for the upcoming Lions tour. Three others have played Super Rugby in New Zealand and South Africa.
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Sunday’s second semi-final features the Kubota Spears, who last weekend ended Kobe’s 21-match unbeaten run. Kubota are on the cusp of equalling their best finish but must blunt Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon’s Suntory Sungoliath juggernaut to repeat their final appearance of two years ago. The Spears will be without Bernard Foley after the former Wallabies fly-half was suspended for three matches on Thursday for a dangerous tackle last week. While Kubota battled on heroically with 14 players, in Suntory they face the league’s most free-scoring outfit.
The Sungoliath average 62 points and nine tries per game, with an attack spearheaded by the competition’s leading point-scorer, Beauden Barrett. The All Blacks playmaker will be desperate to steer the 2018 champions into another final, fully aware that his rival for the New Zealand fly-half jersey, Richie Mo’unga, turned in a stellar performance last weekend to lead the Crusaders to the Super Rugby Aotearoa title.
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