The 55th and final Company Clubs Rugby Football Championship reached the national stage on Saturday with the first round of games in the four groups of four.

News photoSuntory flanker Shinki Gen scores a try during Saturday’s Company Clubs Rugby Football Championship game against Toyota Industries at Chichibunomiya Stadium. Suntory won 64-8.

Plenty is at stake as the top eight teams are automatically rewarded with a place in the new professional 12-team Top League that starts next season.

And with news that the Kaneka club, coached by former All Black Aaron Pene, in the Kansai League is to fold as a result of its failure to make the new league, the feeling among many teams is that they are fighting for their survival.

One such club is Toyota Industries, which finished sixth in the Kansai League and which opened its campaign with a 64-8 loss to reigning champion Suntory at Chichibunomiya Stadium in Tokyo on Saturday in their Group A clash.

In a stop-start affair that was unfortunately dominated by the whistle of the referee the Nagoya-based team held its own for the first 38 minutes or so. However, the sin-binning of No. 8 Mark Murray led to Suntory scoring four tries either side of halftime that effectively killed off the game.

“Suntory kept it tight when we were a man down and that decided the game,” said Toyota coach Chris Milsted. “However, I am pretty happy with the way we played. Suntory are definitely the best team we have come up against.”

The season has been a strange one to date for Suntory. Unbeaten and guaranteed a place in the new league as champion of East Japan — along with Kansai champion Yamaha and Kyushu champion Sanix — the Goliath has yet to produce the form of last year on a continuous basis.

“We tried a lot of things out today but it didn’t really go that well,” said Alama Ieremia, who watched the game from the stands.

The former All Black center, who hopes to return from a knee injury next week, went on to say that perhaps Suntory should go back to basics.

However, the feeling is that the other sides in Japan have risen to the challenge thrown down by Suntory when it won the Company and All-Japan Championships last year.

“We didn’t play that well today but Toyota were very good at killing the ball and defended very well,” said Suntory lock Jamie Washington who scored one of his team’s 10 tries.

“All season we have started poorly and then come away in the last 20 minutes or so and Toyota made us work hard in the first half.”

Junichi Hojo was the pick of the Suntory backs with three tries although he was almost upstaged by Naofumi Yoshida, who ran onto the field with what appeared to be a pair of thermal pants on under his shorts — only for the referee to order him off for a costume change.

As one veteran ex-pat player in the crowd said: “It was the referee’s best decision all day.”

Milsted and his team can return to Kansai knowing that wins over Sanix and Sanyo are not beyond them in order to proceed in the competition, while Suntory will be hoping to regain the form of last year.

In other games played on Saturday, Sanyo beat Sanix 33-20 in Group A; in Group B Yamaha beat Kyushu Electric 64-24 and Kubota defeated Kintetsu 49-24; there were upsets in Group C, which has been dubbed the Group of Death, with NEC defeating World 35-14 and Ricoh beating Toyota Motor 30-20; while in Group D, Toshiba beat Coca Cola West Japan 69-0 and Kobe Steel overcame Secom 59-22.

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