Amanaki Lelei Mafi will spearhead the Sunwolves attack against the Melbourne Rebels at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground on Saturday as the hosts look to play kingmaker in Super Rugby’s Australian Conference.
Mafi played 30 games over two seasons for the Rebels before leaving last year amid a cloud of controversy with allegations of assault against then-teammate Lopeti Timani.
The ongoing court case meant the Japan No. 8 missed the Round 8 game between the two sides in Melbourne, won 42-15 by the hosts, but Sunwolves captain Dan Pryor is hopeful Mafi will be able to put aside the issue and help his side to a pride-restoring win that would put a major dent in the Rebels’ hopes of making the playoffs.
“He has brought heaps of energy to training and we all know what he can bring to the game,” Pryor said of Mafi on Friday at the match venue following his team’s captain’s run.
“He is a big ball carrier and can make some big hits and that can help swing momentum our way.”
The Sunwolves (2-10) are the only side in their group that realistically has little or no chance of making the playoffs.
The three conference winners all get an automatic spot and there are five wild cards available to the other sides finishing in the top eight.
With four rounds remaining just six points separate the top four Australian sides, with the Sunwolves a further 11 points adrift.
The Rebels are currently second in the group with 28 points, one point behind the Brumbies, who play in Tokyo next week, and one point out of eighth spot.
The Sunwolves are fresh off a bye, following a disappointing trip to Australia where they lost narrowly to the Reds despite having just 12 players on the field at the final whistle before suffering a big loss to the Brumbies.
But rather than dwell on that trip and a disappointing season that has seen them win just two games, Scott Hansen, who will take charge of the side for the final four games with Tony Brown back on national team duty, is looking to finish in style.
“What’s important for us is what’s in front of us and we have spoken about our game and the things we have to do well,” Hansen said.
The team have, he said, been focusing on “the importance of understanding our game and getting back to the detail within it. We’ve talked about the things we need to do well, maintain possession, play in the right areas of the field and believe in our game.”
With veteran Australians Will Genia and Quade Cooper dictating how the Rebels play, Mafi and the Sunwolves forwards will need to pressure the Rebels pack and ensure it is the hosts that dictate the pace of the game on what is set to be a very warm day in the nation’s capital.
A failure to turn pressure into points and some very indifferent indiscipline is the reason the Sunwolves, who should have won at least three other games, are languishing at the bottom of the rankings.
And Rebels captain Dane Haylett-Petty is well aware of the threat they pose.
“The Sunwolves have shown they are a very dangerous team,” he said. “We know what Mafi can do, they’ve got a good back row, Hayden Parker is one of the best kickers in the world and a lot of their line breaks come from the back three so we will need to shut them down.”
Rebels coach Dave Wessels, meanwhile, said it was important his side just concentrated on its own game rather than worry about the opposition and the various playoff permutations.
“Our focus is to be the best version of ourselves and be as good without the ball as we are with,” Wessels said.