Barrett, Li shine as Top League kicks off

The final season of the Japan Rugby Top League got underway over the weekend with eight games played across the nation. And although the crowds were limited as the result of COVID-19 restrictions, there was no shortage of action on the field for those that were able to attend.

     Suntory Sungoliath’s signing of Beauden Barrett was the biggest headline of the offseason and the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year made an instant impact at Sagamihara Gion Stadium as he helped his side defeat Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars 75-7.

     Barrett scored a try and kicked eight conversions from nine attempts, but such is the depth of talent at Suntory that he was not his side’s top scorer.

Suntory Sungoliath, Tevita Li

     Tevita Li, who has expressed hopes of playing for Japan at Rugby World Cup 2027, followed on from where he left off after the 2020 season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, scoring five tries to add to the six he scored in five games last year.

     Wallaby center Samu Kerevi also got on the scoresheet as Suntory ran up the highest score of the weekend.

     Things were a lot closer just over 7 kilometers away at Machida Athletic Stadium where Barrett’s longtime halfback partner at the Hurricanes and All Blacks, TJ Perenara, was making his Top League debut for NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.

     Perenara, like Barrett, ensured it was a day to remember as he scored a try and then watched flyhalf Ei Kawamukou bang over a penalty in the 81st minute to seal a 26-24 win over Canon Eagles.

     Jesse Kriel, a member of the Springboks squad that won the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, was among the try scorers for the Eagles.

     In Sunday’s other game, young Australian lock Fred Fewtrell bagged a hat-trick of tries as Yamaha Jubilo topped Hino Red Dolphins 52-17 at Hanazono Stadium.

     Former All Black Augustine Pulu touched down twice for Hino, who are coached by Takuro Miuchi, Japan’s captain at the 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cups. 

     That game was the second played this weekend at the famed Higashi-Osaka stadium, which hosts the annual high school championships that this year celebrated their 100th anniversary.

     On Saturday,  Kobe Kobelco Steelers began the defense of their title at Hanazono with a 47-38 win over NEC Green Rockets.

    Ben Smith, who joined the club in the offseason along with fellow All Black Aaron Cruden, marked his debut with a try in a hard-fought win.

     The 2015 Rugby World Cup winner was joined on the scoresheet by No. 8 Lui Naeata and wing Rakuhei Yamashita, who both touched down twice, with Brave Blossoms prop Iseleli Nakajima and center Tim Lafaele also crossing the chalk

     In the past, most of the foreign-born players have headed north over the equator to play in Japan. But there is a growing number of players from Europe now playing in Japan, and like their counterparts from the Southern Hemisphere they made their presence felt on the opening weekend.

     Former Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw ensured his big personal following over here, and the NTT Communications fans, enjoyed their Saturday night as he helped the Shining Arcs to a 41-13 win over Honda Heat.

     Laidlaw banged over the first conversion of the season following a try by New Zealand Maori representative Fletcher Smith and went on to add a try, a penalty goal and a second conversion despite some blustery conditions at Tokyo’s Yuminoshima Stadium.

     Sunwolves favourite Willem Britz was named man-of-the-match and there was a try on debut for former Wallabies flanker Liam Gill.

     Scotland were not the only Six Nations team with a representative on display with Wales’ Hadleigh Parkes and England’s George Kruis playing for Panasonic Wild Knights and former England back Alex Goode kicking four conversions for NEC in their defeat to Kobe.

     Parkes crossed for Panasonic’s seventh try in their 55-14 win over Ricoh Black Rams. But it was the Knights’ local players who stole the show.

Panasonic Wild Knights, Kenki Fukuoka

     Kenki Fukuoka, who announced later in the day that he would be heading to Juntendo University in April to study medicine touched down for a try as did the Brave Blossoms pair of Shunsuke Nunomaki and Keisuke Uchida and former Japan U-20 captain Shota Fukui.

     Jack Cornelsen, son of former Australia international Greg, also bagged a five-pointer, while Rikiya Matsuda kicked seven conversions and two penalty goals.

     Rugby World Cup 2019 winner Malcom Marx marked his debut for Kubota Spears, having previously played for NTT Communications, with a pair of tries and former Australia flyhalf Bernard Foley weighed in with a try, five conversions and a penalty goal as Frans Ludeke’s team downed Munakata Sanix Blues 43-17.

     Finally, in the closest game of the weekend, Toyota Verblitz held on to beat Toshiba Brave Lupus 34-33, in a match featuring three national team captains at the last Rugby World Cup.

Toyota Verblitz, Kieran Read

     Ex-All Blacks captain Kieran Read and Australia skipper Michael Hooper played the final 30 minutes together for Toyota after the latter came off the bench, while Japan captain Michael Leitch and ex-All Black Matt Todd lined up in the Toshiba back row.

Toyota Verblitz, Michael Hooper

     Leitch and Todd both scored for Toshiba but it was not quite enough to down Toyota, for whom 2019 Rugby World Cup winner Willie le Roux scored a try and compatriot Lionel Cronje kicked 14 points courtesy of four conversions and two penalty goals.

Toshiba Brave Lupus, Michael Leitch

     As Read pointed out after the game at Nagoya’s Paloma Mizuho Rugby Stadium, “It’s exciting to play in a competition with so many great players and help the Japanese rugby scene which is booming after the World Cup.”