The T-shirts worn by the NEC players at the end of the 40th All-Japan Championship summed it up – “NEC Miracle 7.” Having finished seventh in the Kanto League and being forced into a playoff to reach the national stages of the Company Championship, NEC finished the season as champion of Japan following a pulsating 36-26 win over Suntory at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday.
“Unbelievable,” said assistant coach Tom Barker after the game. “The boys were really switched on mentally today and our defense was superb. It was very satisfying.”
NEC’s season may have been slow to start but its players never seemed to lack any self belief and this came to the fore in the last seven minutes of the final when three tries saw them turn around a 26-17 deficit and set them on their way to their first ever title.
“I thought we were safe with 10 minutes to go,” said Suntory center Alama Ieremia. “But I guess it was only a matter of time,” he added, referring to the fact that Suntory had not been beaten by a Japanese side since January 2001.”
“The Suntory coach had said some negative things about our style of play in the week leading up to the final,” said flanker Glen Marsh, who once again epitomized the resilience of the NEC defensive effort. “That really helped to motivate us.”
Suntory opened the scoring in the ninth minute when Takahiro Hiyano charged over after Keichi Shirahama had failed to control a kick ahead by Hirotoki Onozawa, but the lead was shortlived.
Nine minutes later Yuichi Hisadomi was driven over from a lineout five meters out as NEC played to its strengths and kept the ball tight and worked the touchline from every penalty opportunity it was given. Shirahama made amends for his earlier mistake by adding the conversion to put NEC in front.
Suntory, meanwhile, looked to run everything and regained the lead with a try that started in its own 22 — Akira Asada touching down following a rampaging run from Hiyano and good support play from Junichi Hojo.
NEC’s response was straight out of the top draw. Takashi Tsuji was the recipient of some quick ruck ball and, showing tremendous vision, the scrumhalf chipped over the ruck for center Reio Kawae to follow up and score — just reward for two of NEC’s unsung heroes.
Suntory has made a habit of taking games by the scruff of the neck in the second half and so it appeared on Sunday when Naoya Okubo scored a trademark try from a quick penalty in the 45th minute to put his team 19-12 up.
However, NEC responded with a similar try from Masao Amino only for that to be canceled out as Masaaki Sakata drove over from a lineout to restore Suntory’s lead at 26-17.
As Barker said after the game, NEC needed to respond immediately or it would have been all over for it. However, not even he could have envisaged the final seven minutes.
Glen Marsh scored following a perfectly executed backrow move and the NEC players suddenly sensed victory. Superb hands from Koichi Ohigashi put Koichiro Kubota away to score under the posts and the flying wing sealed victory in the 79th minute with his second try, from all of 80 meters out, as NEC’s defense once again forced a turnover close to its line.
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