After leaving the Rebels and moving back to Japan last year, Mafi has kept a low profile. He was initially banned from training with his Top League club the NTT Shining Arcs last season but made headlines last week when he was added to the Sunwolves’ roster in Super Rugby.
Insiders are tipping that he will be named by director of rugby Jamie Joseph in this weekend’s line-up against Queensland in Tokyo.
The Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) has consistently maintained that it would not make a decision about Mafi’s future until the outcome of criminal proceedings in New Zealand.
They have dragged on and now, with his legal team set to lodge an application to have the matter delayed further, it appears Joseph – also coach of Japan – could be keeping Mafi in mind for his World Cup squad.
It would be a controversial appearance, if legally defensible. Mafi is one of Japan’s top international prospects, scoring two tries in the Brave Blossoms’ break-out 2015 World Cup campaign and two tries against Italy last year.
Across two seasons with the Rebels he was a standout ball-carrying threat, featuring in all 31 matches and scoring seven tries. In 2017 he was named Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year.
But off-field controversy has followed him throughout his career. In an incident that only came to light after his alleged assault on Timani, Mafi was reported to have also punched team mate and Wallabies winger Marika Koroibete in Cape Town last year.
He also had his contract torn up at UK Premiership club Bath in 2016 after allegedly punching a medical official.
None of these came to widespread attention until his alleged assault on Timani. The Wallabies back-rower, now playing in France, claims Mafi and his brother engaged in a vicious assault in two different locations before bundling him into a car in a suburb in south Dunedin after an end-of-season celebration turned sour. Timani told the Herald he was forced to flee on foot when the car stopped at traffic lights, then hid in a bush on the roadside until he was sure they had left the area.
Mafi was at the time in advanced talks to re-sign with Melbourne for the 2019 season, while Timani had signed overseas. Both players were also fined $15,000 by the Rebels for their involvement in the late night bust-up. Mafi, facing a serious assault charge that carries a maximum penalty of five years jail, filed a not guilty plea in September.
The case is called for March 27 in the Dunedin District Court. Mafi has been excused from appearing.
Georgina Robinson is the chief rugby reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.