The Top League lower-bracket play-offs, the post-regular season tournament for teams who finished in the bottom four of the two regular season groups to determine their overall season position, kicked off last weekend and there were plenty of internationals on show, past, present and perhaps even future on what was a frosty January afternoon across Japan.
At Chichibunomiya, Samoan Tusi Pisi put in a tremendous performance at fly half as his Suntory Sungoliath team romped to a 52-7 win against Coca Cola Red Sparks in the Japanese capital. The 33-year-old ran in for a third-minute try, a sign of things to come for the remaining 77 minutes as Pisi regularly demonstrated brilliant decision making at no.10, linking up well with Ryota Nakamura and Matsushima to rack up an impressive eight tries in total. Pisi's performance will please Sunwolves' head coach Mark Hammett, with the new Super Rugby team set play their first ever match in just over a month's time.
Springbok and soon-to-be Saracens flanker Schalk Burger came off the bench late on for a cameo appearance for Sungoliath in that game, which sees them progress to the next round of the lower-bracket play-offs to determine their overall position in this season’s Top League.
Fellow South African Ryan Kankowski was also in action in another lower-bracket play-off game on Saturday, with his Toyota Shuttles securing a 27-17 win against Ricoh Black Rams in Tokyo. Former Australia international Mark Gerrard kicked three from four at no.10 and ran in a try himself as Toyota booked their place in the next round. His opposite number and fellow countryman Bernard Foley was unable to make the same impact as Gerrard as his Rams team continued their disappointing campaign.
South Africa full-back Bjorn Basson scored an early try for Honda Heat in their narrow 23-20 defeat of NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, with lock Eben Etzebeth also starting for Heat. Handre Pollard, another South Africa international, had an 100% success-rate with his kicking game but it ultimately proved to be too little as Heat succumbed to defeat.
In the remaining lower-bracket play-off, British-born Matt Saunders, who represents the Philippines at international level, notched a first-half brace of tries for the Kubota Spears, who ran out 30-20 winners against NEC Green Rockets. Former New Zealand full-back Isaia Toeava also went under the posts for a late try to seal the win.