The Cross-Border Rugby Begins

The Cross-Border Rugby Begins

The Cross-Border Rugby competition between leading clubs from Japan Rugby League One and DHL Super Rugby Pacific kicks-off on Saturday when the five-time Japanese champions Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath battle the three-time Super Rugby premiers, the (Auckland) Blues.

The much-awaited series, which is the first between Japanese corporate clubs and New Zealand sides, includes two matches on its opening weekend, with last year’s Super Rugby finalists, the Gallagher (Waikato) Chiefs traveling to League One’s current log leaders, Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, in Sunday’s second game.

The Chiefs were formerly coached by current Kobelco Kobe Steelers boss Dave Rennie, who won two titles with the club in 2012 and 2013, while five-time Crusaders Super Rugby-winning coach Robbie Deans is in charge at the Wild Knights.

The coaching links reflect the close relations between Japan and New Zealand, which are reinforced by this historic series.

While the games are outside of any formal competitions, and will be played under trial conditions, Japan Rugby League One officials believe The Cross Border Rugby will be the start of a long-term connection between the countries at club level.

The Blues, who are under new management with former Scotland boss Vern Cotter taking over, arrive in Japan looking to build on last season’s campaign, where they made the semi-finals before losing to the defending champion Crusaders.

Cotter has named a strong squad, including several All Blacks, to meet Sungoliath, who are third in the league, having won five of its six games to date.

The home side will introduce its new marquee signing, the star Los Pumas flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez, as he makes his debut for the club.

This is Sungoliath’s second encounter with Super Rugby opposition, having lost a close match with the Brumbies of Australia in the Japanese pre-season late last year, although both teams were largely staffed by development players.

The Wild Knights have also played Super Rugby opposition during this campaign, losing by two with a development XV in their annual clash against the Queensland Reds in Brisbane late last year.

The Cross-Border Rugby is the start of a frequent association between teams from Japan and New Zealand in 2024, with both the Maori All Blacks and the All Blacks, set to visit later in the year.

The Maori All Blacks play a Japan XV on June 29, and July 6 while the Brave Blossoms tackle the All Blacks on October 26.

Players to Watch:

Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath

Kotaro Matsushima (winger): Capped 55 times by the Brave Blossoms, Matsushima played in all four of Japan’s appearances at the Rugby World Cup. A pacy outside back, Matsushima is a rarity for Japan Rugby League One in that he has also played in the Top 14 in France, where he appeared for Clermont Auvergne. A key attacking weapon for Sungoliath, the 30-year-old has scored twice in five matches this season.

Nicolas Sanchez (flyhalf): Coming to the end of a career filled with star dust, there isn’t much Argentine star Nicolas Sanchez hasn’t experienced. But he has never played club rugby in Japan. The Los Pumas maestro, called up by Suntory as replacement for injured Wales flyhalf Gareth Anscombe, will become the second Argentine playing in this season’s league when he first steps out, joining Mie Honda Heat’s injured backrower Pablo Matera. With a career that boasts 110 tests and 941 test points, Sanchez gets the chance in Saturday’s opener in The Cross Border Rugby to show the value he will provide, kicking the goals, providing the backline general ship, but also acting as a mentor for the club’s 22-year-old rookie flyhalf, Mikiya Takamoto. Sanchez is a familiar face to Super Rugby fans, having been a regular feature during the Jaquares’ journey in the competition, including on their run to the 2019 final.

Harry Hockings (second rower): Formerly part of the engine room for the Queensland Reds in Super Rugby, Hockings was superb last term for Suntory, making more tackles than any other player across all three Divisions of the league. Named in the
league’s team of the year, the 25-year-old, who is edging towards qualification for Japan on residential grounds, is a player who may, in time, be in the sights of national coach Eddie Jones. His importance to Suntory is recognised by his naming as 

(Auckland) Blues

Patrick Tuipulotu: Now back in New Zealand after appearing for Toyota Verblitz on sabbatical two years ago, Tuipulotu has much to play for as he returns to familiar turf, with the chance to lock up the All Black second row spot vacated by the now Kobe-based Brodie Retallick, if he has a strong DHL Super Rugby season. The 31-year-old has played 43 tests, the most recent of which was against Japan in 2022. Tuipolutu starts the year one game short of 100 Super Rugby appearances for the Blues, having made his debut in 2014, where he began the season as a rookie and was an All Black by the end of it. Unfortunately, injury has blighted his career, forcing him to miss both the 2015 and 2023 Rugby World Cups, with his only tournament appearance coming at the one in-between, held in Japan.

Hoskins Sotutu: Another former All Black out to impress new coach Scott Robertson, Sotutu kicks off the new season having reached the 50-game milestone in his most recent appearance for the Blues. The son of a long-serving winger in New Zealand domestic play, and for Fiji, Waisake, Hoskin made his debut for the Blues in 2019, and played the first of his 14 tests for the All Blacks the following year. While New Zealand doesn’t lack for backrow talent, with Ardie Savea and Sam Cane to return after their stints in Japan Rugby League One, an injury free season should see Sotutu in the discussion, especially if he can rediscover the damaging form of his formative representative seasons. The 25-year-old’s last test came against England in London in 2022.

Stephen Perofeta (flyhalf): A leading contender in the race to replace a player now based in Japan, Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, Stephen Perofeta will kick off his chase for the All Black number 10 jersey in Japan. Capped three
times by New Zealand, the most recent of which came against Argentina in Christchurch in 2022, Perofeta has made 57 appearances for the Blues, from which he has scored 292 points.

Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights

Dylan Riley (centre): A key member of the side, Riley was the top try-scorer in the maiden Japan Rugby League One three seasons ago and sits atop the standings again with six as the competition pauses for The Cross Border Rugby. Educated in Australia at The Southport School (Gold Coast), where he later represented the country in the Under-20s, the 26-year-old has played 18 tests for the Brave Blossoms, since making his debut two years ago.

Jack Cornelsen (second row): Son of former Wallaby Greg Cornelsen, who famously scored four tries against the All Blacks at Eden Park during an historic Australian victory in 1978, Jack Cornelsen is a rising star of the Japanese game, having played 20 tests since his debut in 2021. A versatile forward, who can play either in the middle row or in the back three of the scrum, Australian-born Cornelsen played all four of the Brave Blossoms’ tests at last year’s Rugby World Cup and has established himself as a regular in Japan’s match day squad.

Shota Horie (hooker): Arguably the most fascinating player in the international game, hooker Shota Horie last year played his 150th game for the Wild Knights, adding this milestone to a glittering career that has included four Rugby World Cups, 76 test matches and the captaincy of both his club, and his country. Player of the match when Japan famously beat the then-world number one ranked Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Horie will know what to expect as the Wild Knights line up the
Chiefs, having encountered them before during two separate stints in Super Rugby with the Melbourne Rebels (2013-14) and Sunwolves (2016-19). The 37-year-old is set to retire at the end of the current Japan Rugby League One season.

Gallagher (Waikato) Chiefs

Kaylum Boshier (back rower): The younger of two brothers – both loose forwards – who have played for the Chiefs, The Cross Border Rugby brings the siblings face-to-face, with elder brother Lachlan (28) now into his second season with the Wild Knights, after playing 64 times for the Chiefs between 2016 and 2021. Kaylum (24) has played for the Chiefs 17 times since his debut in 2021. A talented sportsman, Kaylum also captained the New Zealand Under-19 cricket team, before choosing rugby as his professional sporting path.

Jimmy Tupou (second row/back rower): After ending a successful stint in Japan with Urayasu D-Rocks, Jimmy Tupou’s first outing for his new team will be in... Japan. A former New Zealand Under-20 captain, Tupou gave great service to his club in
Japan Rugby League One, joining NTT Communications Shining Arcs (which became Urayasu) in 2020 after stints with the Crusaders (37 games, 2013-16) and Blues (16 games, 2017-18). Tupou played 31 matches in Japan, 12 of which came last
season where D-Rocks won Division Two but were unable to progress (gain promotion) after they lost the two-legged Replacement Battle against Hanazono Kintetsu Liners. Now 31, Tupou will have his eye on All Black selection, although he missed being coached by Scott Robertson at the Crusaders, departing the year before the new All Black boss took charge.

Quinn Tupaea (centre): Having lost a season due to a nasty injury sustained in a Bledisloe Cup test in Melbourne in 2022, Chiefs’ coach Clayton McMillan won’t be the only one with eyes on centre Quinn Tupaea as he makes his return. The 24-year-old had played 14 tests for the All Blacks after making his debut in 2021 and would have been a good chance of Rugby World Cup selection had injury not intervened. The Cross Border Rugby marks the start of a comeback that is sure to have All Black coach Scott Robertson an interested observer. Tupaea has played 34 matches for the Chiefs after making his debut in 2020.

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