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Sungoliath earn title

Star Gregan ends career after lifting All Japan Cup

by Zilia Zara-Papp

Rugby legend George Gregan finished his illustrious career in style, helping Suntory Sungoliath hoist the All Japan Cup on Sunday.

Suntory defeated the Sanyo Wild Knights 37-20 in the 48th All-Japan Championship in front of 14,477 spectators at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.

Among those in attendance were Japan head coach John Kirwan, former Japan Prime Minister and current JRFU president Yoshiro Mori and Ian Kennedy, New Zealand’s ambassador to Japan, on hand for a halftime ceremony to commemorate the victims of the February 22 earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand.

But the day belonged to Gregan and Suntory.

“Today was my greatest experience as a player in Japan,” said the 37-year-old, world class scrum half. “It was a great way to finish my playing career as a Suntory player. “This year brought great change in all aspects to our team, how we trained, our attitude, our spirit. We talked about playing aggressive attacking rugby, but we also wanted to win. It is really hard to do both, especially against a tough team as Sanyo.”

Gregan holds a world-record 139 caps for the Wallabies, and he helped win the 1999 Rugby World Cup. In 2001 and 2004, he won Super 12 championships with the Brumbies. In 2004, he hit France and second-division Toulon, where he won a championship, reuniting in 2008 at Suntory with former Wallabies and Brumbies coach Eddie Jones.

After losing in the Top League playoff tournament finals 28-23 last month against Sanyo, Jones’ team made sure there were no mistakes this time, living up to their motto, “Aggressive, Attacking Rugby.”

Gregan’s fingerprints have been all over Suntory’s achievements this season, especially in the development of rookie-of-the-year scrum half Atsushi Hiwasa. On Sunday, Suntory cracked Sanyo’s defense three times in the first half with a relentless forward-moving attack built around Hiwasa, who set up tries for left-wing Hirotoki “The Eel” Onozawa in the 11th, and Suntory right-wing Yasunori Nagatomo, probably earning the nickname “Eel Junior” with his elusive movement in the 33rd minute. Center Ryan Nicholas placed both conversions as well as a penalty kick in the 16th.

The final first-half blow to Sanyo started when Wild Knights left-wing Akihito Yamada, the Top League final MVP, knocked on the ball from Suntory fullback Go Aruga’s kick, yielding a Suntory scrum deep within Sanyo territory. Suntory fly-half Tusi Pisiata gained the ball, and after finding a crack in Sanyo’s defense, placed an individual try that Nicholas converted successfully.

After nailing penalty kicks in the 5th and 13th minutes, Sanyo fullback Atsushi Tanabe missed another as the halftime sirens sounded. Suntory led 24-6 at the break.

The second stanza carried the same tune for Sanyo, playing Masakazu Irie at fly-half, as they lost regular fly-half Tony Brown to a hamstring injury he suffered last week in the semifinals against Toshiba Brave Lupus.

The sides traded scores in the second half, the first try coming from Sanyo No. 8 Ryu Koliniasi Holani in the 52nd minute. Tanabe converted. Four minutes later, Suntory blind side flanker and U.S. Eagles captain Todd Clever set up hooker Yusuke Aoki for a try with the help of captain and No. 8 Juntaro Takemoto. Nicholas missed the conversion.

Three minutes later, Sanyo prop Jungo Kikawa passed through Suntory defense in an individual run, and Sanyo center Sam Norton-Knight placed a try before Tanabe’s conversion.

Fifteen minutes before full time, spreading the ball wide on the right, Suntory’s Takemoto passed to outside center Koji Taira, who set up Nagatomo for the final try of the game in the far right. Nicholas again missed the conversion.

Suntory sub Peter Hewat wrapped up the scoring in the 76th minute with a penalty kick, setting off the celebration of his team and Gregan’s legacy. “He’s been a great player, we’ve been very lucky to have him,” Jones said of Gregan, the man of the afternoon. “He left an enormous legacy at Suntory.”