Cooper and Genia to light up the Top League
Wallabies Quade Cooper and Will Genia begin their chase for the big prize in Japan on Sunday, when their team, the Liners, tackle Blues in the first round of the Top League elimination series.
As a qualifier from the second-tier challenger tournament, Kintetsu went into the pot for the first knockout round.
The Blues have former Wallaby prop Paddy Ryan and Queensland-raised, eight-Test Japan international lock James Moore on their roster.
The game is one of four on the opening weekend of the playoffs, with all roads leading to the final at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium on May 23.
The Liners, who are prepared by former Queensland coach Nick Stiles, invested heavily to chase a place in Japan’s new fully professional league, which kicks off next year.
While on-field performance only partly contributes to selection, the club signalled its ambition by signing the veteran Wallaby halves duo, so a first-round exit would be a major flop and could place its aspirations in jeopardy.
Other Australians featuring this weekend include former Queensland utility Ben Lucas, whose Red Sparks play the Dynaboars, as well as the Brisbane-educated Queensland lock Tom Murday, for the Shuttles against the Green Rockets.
The Shuttles convincingly beat the Liners in the Challenger Final and will be fancied to win on Saturday against an NEC side that hasn’t won for two years.
The Green Rockets have former Western Force and Queensland Reds coach Richard Graham on the staff.
This weekend starts a run of five weeks of sudden-death play, with the top six from each of the eight-team preliminary conferences entering in the second round.
Red conference winner Suntory Sungoliath, and All Black star Beauden Barrett, await the winner of the Shuttles-Green Rockets contest.
A Kintetsu victory would bring Cooper and Genia face-to-face with their former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, with the Wild Knights next up for Sunday’s winner.
The Wild Knights, whose Aussie trio of centre Dylan Riley, No.8 Jack Cornelsen and loose forward Ben Gunter was selected in the Japan training squad this week, landed a good draw and are favoured to advance to at least the semi-finals, where their likely opponent would be Michael Hooper’s Verblitz.
Suntory has a trickier path, with former Melbourne Rebels’ coach Damien Hill’s improving Ricoh Black Rams a possible quarter-final opponent, while one of the two 2019 finalists, Bernard Foley’s Kubota Spears or the All Black-laden Kobelco Steelers, shape as probable semifinal opposition.