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NEC continued its Lazarus-like resurgence in the 55th Company Clubs Rugby Football Championship with a 24-17 win over Ricoh at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya Stadium on Sunday, the victory ensuring NEC finished top of Group C, with Ricoh also qualifying for the quarterfinals as runnerup in the group.

News photoNathan Strongman of Sanyo
attempts to tackle Toru Kurihara of Suntory during Sunday’s
National Company Rugby Championship match. Suntory won
90-24.

The big news of the day came from the other game in the so-called “group of death”, in which a 74th-minute drop goal from World fullback Koji Fukuoka saw World recover from a 20-0 deficit at halftime to beat Toyota Motors 23-20. Although both sides were out of contention for a spot in the last eight of the company championship there was still plenty to play for as the losers would miss out on a spot in the new Top League that starts next September.

Five-time champion Toyota will therefore have to play in the Kansai League next season while the victory ensures World will not pull the plug on its rugby team as had been anticipated if the team had not made the new professional league.

Having finished seventh in the Kanto League, NEC had had to win a playoff to reach the national stages of the tournament. However, the team has gone from strength to strength and victories over World, Toyota Motors and Ricoh have given the NEC players renewed confidence going into its quarterfinal clash with Yamaha, which will be looking to rebound from its surprise 38-26 loss to Kintetsu on Jan 2.

“The last four or five weeks have seen the team develop a real belief in themselves,” said NEC assistant coach Tom Barker.

The game started with NEC keeping it very tight (a deliberate change of tactics according to Barker) as both sides played a kicking game with the swirling wind dictating strategy.

However a free-kick to NEC 40 meters out meant the ball had to stay in hand and Keichi Shirahama made the most of the opportunity. Showing great pace and a change of direction the fullback got to within a meter of the Ricoh line before offloading the ball in the tackle to center Reio Kawae who went over for the try. Shirahama added the conversion as NEC went 7-0 up.

The lead was to last 20 minutes. Former All Black Glen Osborne scored a penalty before Ricoh scrumhalf Takashi Goto scampered away for a try from 35 meters out after NEC had failed to find touch with a penalty.

NEC showed its new-found resilience and added two tries before the break through Koichi Ohigashi (helped by a clever through-the-legs pass by Kawae) and Keichiro Kubota — both scores the result of NEC being able to keep the ball alive in the tackle and switch play from one side to the other.

Two further penalties by Osborne helped Ricoh close the gap to 17-14 but that was as close as it got. With the NEC pack taking over Ricoh was forced into some desperate defense and managed to hold out, both legally and illegally, until the 80th minute when the referee finally awarded NEC a penalty try for constant infringement.

Kaname Okamura added the extra two points as NEC gained revenge for the 21-7 loss Ricoh inflicted on it earlier in the season in the Kanto League.

In the day’ s second game at Chichibunomiya, Toshiba Fuchu ran Secom ragged, winning 58-10 and ensuring it topped Group D and setting up a quarterfinal clash with Sanyo (which lost 90-24 to last year’s champion Suntory).

Kobe Steel beat Coca Cola West Japan 69-17 to finish second in the group and will face Suntory (winner of Group A) in the last eight — a repeat of last year’ s final.

Kubota beat Kyushu Electric 52-11 but failed to make the last eight following Kintetsu’ s surprise over Yamaha — a result that meant the Liners topped Group B, earning them a quarterfinal tie with Ricoh.

For the teams that finished third in their respective groups, World, Secom, Kubota and Sanix, there is the consolation that they will be part of the new professional era.

There will be plenty of soul-searching and an in-depth post-mortem in Nagoya for Toyota Motors as one of the big names in Japanese rugby tries to come to terms with its failure in this year’s campaign — the last of the amateur age.

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