If Sunday’s Top League final is any indication, the Brave Blossoms are about to take a gigantic leap forward.
New Japan coach Eddie Jones had Suntory Sungoliath running like a well-oiled machine in their convincing 47-28 win over the rival Panasonic Wild Knights at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
“Subarashii – it was excellent,” said former Wallabies coach and Springboks adviser Jones, who took over Suntory in 2010. “The way we attacked, we met the conditions of the game. In the last cup, we could only play fast. This time we are a much more flexible team, a much more physical team, and that was evident today.”
Suntory started its ambitious attack early on, breaking through the Panasonic defense as early as the fourth minute, when Knights fly-half Mike Delany barely kept Tusi Pisiata from crossing, pushing Pisiata to the corner flag. The TV match official ruled Pisiata out of bounds.
Suntory inside center Ryan Nicholas’ consecutive penalty kicks in the seventh and 15th minutes got the scoring going, putting pressure on Panasonic.
The Knights bounced back briefly, going into counter attack and massive offense in Suntory’s own field. That yielded the game’s first try from a break-away by Panasonic’s Jaque Fourie. Atsushi Tanabe converted, changing the game’s flow.
Panasonic kept on attacking and Tanabe managed to put over a penalty kick in the 25th and Delany in the 31st minute. Their hold on the game’s flow was to be short-lived, however.
Suntory dominated the last 10 minutes of the first half, increasing its attacks. Scrum half Fourie du Preez, a former Springbok, scored the team’s first try from a pass by open-side flanker Takamichi Sasaki, gaining the ball from a ruck. Nicholas converted.
Four minutes before halftime, Suntory pushed over a rolling maul from Panasonic’s five-meter line, with former Wallaby George Smith scoring. Nicholas converted from the far left angle, giving Suntory a 20-13 lead at the break.
The second half saw an ambitious Sungoliath attack and matching Panasonic defense, with points coming off penalties from Nicholas in the 42nd and Tanabe in the 52nd minute.
Meanwhile, Smith sealed up the MVP award, crossing the line on a rolling maul in the 61st minute and breaking away four minutes later to complete a hat trick. Nicholas converted both.
“It is nice to be MVP, but it was very much a team effort,” Smith said. “I was very fortunate today for playing in such a great team. . .”
Panasonic revived briefly in the 70th minute, Fourie stealing the ball from the Suntory attack, sprinting the whole field and scoring an individual try, but Panasonic replacement full-back Sam Norton-Knight failed to convert. Nicholas placed another penalty in the 74th, and two minutes later landed another try, set up by a Panasonic ball-handling error.
“We couldn’t defend well one on one,” said Panasonic captain/ inside center Seiichi Shimomura. “We couldn’t stop them and had to yield the field little by little. We couldn’t tackle effectively as well, even though we aimed to attack and recycle the ball with speed.”
Panasonic blindside flanker Sione Vatuvei’s try two minutes after full time, converted by Noguchi, rounded out the scoring.
Star-clad Suntory’s convincing victory, facilitated by improved fitness, physicality, discipline and concentration, showed why Jones was sought after to replace John Kirwan at the helm of the Japan national team.
“It is all about winning and this is how we played the game today,” Jones said. “The players wanted to win today, and I want the national team to have the same attitude.”