Ardie Savea suffers setback while Marika Koroibete stars and Richie Mo’unga’s the hero as teams jostle for top four

Lawrence Nolan
Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo fly-half Richie Mo'unga waves to fans.

Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo fly-half Richie Mo'unga waves to fans.

Ardie Savea’s hopes of ending his sabbatical with a Japan Rugby League One title suffered a blow after his team, Kobelco Kobe Steelers, fell out of the top four of Division One following a 36-27 defeat to third-placed Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath.

Kobe’s loss on Sunday came off the back of two first-half yellow cards, and the concession of four second-half tries in an indifferent display.

Suntory lost centre Isaiah Punivai to a yellow card after just five minutes, but his Kobe countrymen Tiennan Costley and Brodie Retallick returned the ‘favour’ by also being given 10-minute ‘breathers’ before a tight first period was completed with Sungoliath ahead 8-6 thanks to the first of winger Seiya Ozaki’s two tries for the afternoon.

Settled the contest

Ozaki’s second, which was the ninth of the campaign for last season’s leading try-scorer, all but settled the contest, after the match opened up in the second half. Kobe wilted, being prised open twice during a decisive third quarter which saw back-rower Hendrik Tui and Australian second-rower Harry Hockings cross in the opposite corners for tries.

Suntory hooker and skipper Kosuke Horikoshi’s 11th try of the season – six of which have come in the last five matches – dampened any prospect of a Kobe revival, after the Steelers’ opening try of the afternoon on the hour mark by back-rower Amanaki Saumak had briefly raised their hopes.

Kobe even cut the gap to eight with 13 minutes remaining after former Sunwolves centre Michael Little scored, but Ozaki’s second try eased any Suntory nerves, with Japan international Timothy Lafaele’s injury-time try coming too late to even salvage a vital bonus point for Dave Rennie and Savea‘s error-ridden side.

Yokohama Canon Eagles jumped above Kobe into fourth on the standings after they beat Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo on Saturday in convincing fashion. The Eagles overcame some stout first-half resistance to ease to a 12-0 half-time lead, before dominating the third quarter to make the game safe, closing out a 31-12 win.

Tries after the break by South African-born back-rower Kobus van Dyk and centre Yusuke Kujimura added to the first-half scores of hooker Shunta Nakamura and back-rower Naoto Shimada, establishing a 24-point lead that Ricoh was never going to run down over the closing stages.

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Whoever is fourth in the end will almost certainly have to play the free-scoring Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, who ground down Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars 53-12 at Kumagaya to claim a semi-final place.

The visitors, who’d conceded a whopping 182 points in the three most recent meetings between the teams, initially looked as if they were going to make a game of it, striking back after the concession of two early tries with two of their own, to trail 14-12 after 22 minutes.

That was where their resistance ended though, with the Wild Knights rounding out the first half with two additional tries to lead 32-12 at the break, before holding their opponents scoreless in the second period while they extended beyond 50 for the third time in four outings against the Dynaboars.

Utility back Ryuji Noguchi and Brave Blossoms back-rower Jack Cornelsen each scored against Mitsubishi for the fourth game running, while Dylan Riley picked up two, taking the Brave Blossoms centre’s season total to 12, and outright second on the individual standings. Ominously for Saitama’s upcoming opponents, Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete also notched a brace and looks in fine form.

The other home semi-finalist is likely to be Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, whose narrow 22-20 win over defending champions Kubota Spears left them needing only one more win to guarantee their semi-final spot in second.

Richie Mo’unga kicks winner

Brave Lupus had Richie Mo’unga to thank for their success, after the All Blacks fly-half converted the 80th minute try of his former Super Rugby teammate, ex-New Zealand centre Seta Tamanivalu, who had joined the game with half an hour to play.

The Spears had led 20-10 after South African second-rower JD Schickerling’s try four minutes into the second half, but they let the game get away and are now highly unlikely to make the final four.

Toyota Verblitz and Shizuoka BlueRevs both kept their faint semi-final hopes alive with 47-30 and 43-14 wins over Hanazono Kintetsu Liners and Mie Honda Heat respectively.

The BlueRevs raced to a 31-0 half-time lead and their win featured a brace from winger Malo Tuitama, who took the opportunity to add two more to his league-leading total, which now stands at 14.

Braces were also registered by Verblitz winger Viliame Tuidraki and centre Charlie Lawrence, while scrum-half Aaron Smith was also on the scoresheet as Steve Hansen’s men kept their season alive.

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