The Australian influence on Japan Rugby League One has manifested itself on the inaugural final, with Samu Kerevi’s Suntory Sungoliath set to meet the Robbie Deans-coached Saitama Wild Knights next Sunday.
Suntory reversed a 27-3 loss to the same opponent three weeks ago to fend off Toshiba Brave Lupus 30-24 on Saturday while Saitama had too many guns for Bernard Foley’s Kubota Spears in Sunday’s semi-final, coasting home 24-10.
The results mean the arch-rivals will reprise last year’s Top League final, which the Wild Knights won 31-26, to tie Suntory on five titles apiece from the 20-year duration of that competition.
Joining Kerevi on the Suntory playing staff is the former Queensland Reds’ lock Harry Hockings.
Deans, who coached the Wallabies to the No.2 ranking for the bulk of his six-year tenure in charge, is surrounded by Australian-born or Australian-schooled players on the Saitama roster.
As well as Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete who joined this year, and veteran former Wallaby lock Dan Heenan, the Australian-schooled Japanese Test trio of loose forwards Jack Cornelsen and Ben Gunter and centre Dylan Riley are also at the club.
So too is imposing former Melbourne Rebels junior Esei Ha’angana, who starred in Sunday’s win after gaining a rare start in the absence of English test lock George Kruis.
The semi-final represented an incredible 31st on-field success in a row for Deans’ men, a run that dates to the 2019 qualifying series.
This includes a convincing 34-17 win over Suntory during the qualifying round.
Should the Wild Knights take next weekend’s final, it would represent the fifth title of Deans’ association with the club, matching the number achieved by Super Rugby’s most successful coach during his nine seasons leading the Crusaders.
Standing in the way is a Suntory outfit that showed its mettle to hold Toshiba scoreless for the final 20 minutes, after some trickery from All Black utility back Damien McKenzie had helped establish a six-point lead.
The Brave Lupus were simply unable to deny McKenzie the time and space to limit his impact on the game, a mistake that won’t have gone unnoticed by the Wild Knights.
Meanwhile Israel Folau is facing possible relegation in his debut season in Japan after NTT Communications lost the first leg of its promotion/relegation playoff on Saturday.
The Shining Arcs, who are coached by the former NSW Waratahs boss Rob Penney, must make up an eight-point deficit in next week’s second leg after falling 33-25 to the Mitsubishi Dynaboars.
The other promotion/relegation match saw NEC’s director of rugby, former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, gain his first on-field win as the Green Rockets overpowered Honda Heat 33-10, to take a commanding advantage into the return game.
The winners of the promotion series will join Quade Cooper and Will Genia’s Kintetsu Liners in the top division next year after Kintetsu gained automatic promotion by winning the second-tier title.