Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya Stadium hosts the final of the 2018 Japan Top League today as defending champions Suntory Sungoliath take on Kobelco Steelers. Suntory, going for their sixth title, are up against a team that hasn’t won a championship since the Top League season (2003-2004).
Kobe is unbeaten this season and a major reason for that has been the stunning performance of the club’s new signing; three-time World Player of the Year, Dan Carter.
The former All-Black has taken to Japanese rugby like a duck to water. On song with his kicking from the tee (88% success rate), Carter has also dotted down seven times in as many matches for the Steelers.
Using his trademark side-step and fend, the New Zealander has been busting through Japanese defensive lines all season creating try-scoring opportunities galore for himself and his teammates. Last weekend was no different as the Steelers comfortably beat a strong Toyota Verblitz side 31-19 with Carter contributing 21 points.
Other players who could impact the game on Saturday for Kobelco include towering flanker Grant Hattingh, who always brings an aggressive physical presence at the break-down and in the tackle, speedster Fraser Anderson, who has scored four tries in the playoffs so far, and utility backs, ex-Highlander Richard Buckman and the highly experienced Australian Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Today’s finalists last met in round three of regular play at the same venue where Sungoliath was comprehensively out-maneuvered by the men from Kobe. Carter on his debut featured heavily in the 36-20 victory with a personal tally of 21 points including four penalties and a five-pointer.
Suntory’s strength lies in its robust forward pack with the likes of Kiwi Joe Wheeler at lock and Japanese international back rower Hendrik Tui playing alongside hard-man Sean McMahon. Not to be outdone in the playmaking role Suntory has also brought a quality fly-half into its ranks. Former Wallaby Matt Giteau dons the no. 10 jersey for Sungoliah and will be tasked with keeping a watchful eye on Carter.
In the backs, scrum-half and captain Yutaka Nagare links up with Giteau with last week’s hat-trick try scorer Seiya Ozaki on the left wing and full-back Kotaro Matsushima in support.
The final promises to be a cracker of a battle with each fly-half having the ability to turn the game on its head with elusive running, clever line-breaks, deft kicks over the defense and accurate goal kicking. Up front expect to see many a bruising encounter in the rucks as both forward packs endeavor to gain the upper hand. All eyes however will be on Carter as he attempts to add a Japanese Top League Rugby trophy to his already impressive collection of three Super Rugby titles, nine Tri-Nations /Rugby Championships and two World Cups. Although Suntory has a habit of being tenacious opponents in finals rugby, Carter’s influence should prove the difference and see Kobelco to its second ever Top League title by seven points or more.