The heavyweights of Japanese rugby will square off again after Suntory Sungoliath and Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights won their way into next weekend’s inaugural final of Japan Rugby League One.
Suntory fended off a stern challenge from Toshiba Brave Lupus to win the opening semifinal 30-24 at Osaka Saturday before the Wild Knights overpowered Kubota Spears 24-10 in the second semifinal in Tokyo Sunday.
The two clubs have won 10 of the 20 championships in the Japanese Top League which was recast in a new format this year and rebranded Japan Rugby League One.
Next weekend’s final reprises the decider from the last Top League when the Wild Knights beat the Sungoliath 31-26.
The Wild Knights’ success last year leveled the title share from the Top League era at five apiece and the defending champions will start the first Japan Rugby League One title match firm favourites after defeating their arch-rivals 34-17 during the qualifying rounds.
Saitama are guided by Super Rugby’s most successful coach, New Zealand-born Robbie Deans who won five Super Rugby titles with the Christchurch-based Crusaders and later took the Wallabies to the No. 2 ranking in world rugby during six years coaching Australia. Deans has won four titles in Japan and will emulate his feats in Christchurch should the Wild Knights succeed again.
The Wild Knights enter the final on the back of one of the longest winning streaks globally in any professional sport, having won 31 consecutive matches in a run that dates to 2019.
Former England and Wales test stars George Kruis and Hadleigh Parkes, who joined the club after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, have yet to lose wearing a Wild Knights jersey, nor has Wallaby star Marika Koroibete who joined this year. Kruis will retire after the final.
Sungoliath, whose challenge is spearheaded by the Wallaby midfield powerhouse Samu Kerevi and All Blacks fullback Damian McKenzie are coached by the former Georgia coach Milton Haig.
England coach Eddie Jones, who has a long association with Sungolitath, is an adviser.
Despite the disruption from COVID-19, Japan Rugby League One has made a promising start in its first season, with organisers confident that interest in the new league will only continue to grow.
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