Top League round one dominated by All blacks, Springboks and Wallabies
SPOTLIGHT: The first round of Japan’s Top League was full of action with Springboks, Wallabies and All Blacks stars stealing the show.
All Blacks star Beauden Barrett has kicked-off his Top League career in fine fashion, scoring a try and eight conversions to help guide Suntory Sungoliath to a 75-7 thumping of Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Minami-Ku.
Barrett’s 21-point haul on debut was eclipsed by teammate and fellow Kiwi Tevita Li, though, with the former Blues and Highlanders wing notching five of his side’s 11 tries at Sagamihara Gion Stadium.
Li, who revealed his ambitions to play for Japan over the weekend, was the undoubted star of the show, stealing his fair share of the limelight off Barrett who finally made his long-awaited first appearance in the Top League.
The two-time World Rugby Player of the Year looked more than comfortable at first-five for Suntory, taking on the Mitsubishi defence multiple times and putting teammates outside of him into space regularly.
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Many of Li’s tries wouldn’t have come without Barrett’s playmaking inside of him, but the former can now boast an incredible strike rate of 11 tries in just six matches since joining Suntory ahead of the 2020 Top League.
Former Wallabies midfielder Samu Kerevi also proved to be a menace for Suntory, as he bagged a try himself to pile misery on the likes of former All Blacks pair Jackson Hemopo and Colin Slade, who was on debut for Mitsubishi after joining from Pau.
Former Blues and Sunwolves midfielder grabbed the only try for the Dynaboars early in the first half, but it was one-way traffic from there as Suntory propelled themselves to top spot of the Red Conference after the opening round of the season.
They are joined there by NTT Communications Shining Arcs, who were led to a 41-13 victory over Honda Heat by debutant halves pairing Greig Laidlaw and Fletcher Smith and former Wallabies flank Liam Gill, and Kubota Spears.
Laidlaw, the ex-Scotland captain and British and Irish Lions halfback, nabbed a try and scored a total of 12 points, while Smith, formerly of the Highlanders and Hurricanes, also scored a try and two conversions.
Gill added a try himself to place the Shining Arcs just below Suntory on points difference.
Kubota, meanwhile, cruised to a 43-17 win over Munakata Sanix Blues in Narita. Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx and former Wallabies playmaker Bernard Foley led the way with a collective total of three tries and 28 points.
In the same conference, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper got his Top League off to a winning start, coming off the bench for Toyota Verblitz to play an important role in closing out a 34-33 win over Toshiba Brave Lupus in Nagoya.
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Hooper won his side an important turnover near the end of the match as they narrowly held off Toshiba from completing a mighty comeback, with the Brave Lupus trailing 27-7 early in the second half.
That match featured a raft of familiar names, as former All Blacks captain Kieran Read and Springboks fullback Willie le Roux started for Toyota, while Japan captain Michael Leitch, ex-All Blacks flanker Matt Todd and former All Blacks centre Seta Tamanivalu (on debut) all scored for Toshiba.
In the White Conference, juggernauts Panasonic Wild Knights and Yamaha Jubilo made early statements, picking up 55-14 and 52-17 victories over Ricoh Black Rams and Hino Red Dolphins, respectively.
Welsh midfielder Hadleigh Parkes and English lock George Kruis both made their debuts for Panasonic, with the latter joining Japanese World Cup star Kenki Fukuoa on the score sheet.
Former All Blacks halfback Agustine Pulu, meanwhile, scored two of Hino’s three tries as they crumbled in front of their home fans in Osaka
Elsewhere, current All Blacks halfback TJ Perenara got off to winning ways in his first appearance for NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, scoring a try in the first competitive match of his sabbatical to help secure a 26-24 win over Jesse Kriel’s Canon Eagles.
In the only other match of the weekend, reigning champions Kobelco Steelers were given a good run for their money by NEC Green Rockets, who took the game to their All Blacks-laden opponents in a 47-38 defeat at Hanazono Rugby Stadium.
Former New Zealand international Ben Smith scored a try on debut from the right wing, as did Brave Blossoms stars Tim Lafaele and Isileli Nakajima, while lock Brodie Retallick was sent to the sin bin after half an hour of play.
No. 8 Lui Naeta and wing Rakuhei Yamashita both added a brace of tries to deny ex-England international and NEC playmaker Alex Goode victory in his first Top League showing.