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The new Top League may have been established to ensure the next generation of Japanese rugby players can compete on the world stage and Hirotoki Onozawa certainly made his mark with four tries — but the party that marked the launch of the new league was for a time gate-crashed by some of the veterans of the company rugby scene on Saturday.

News photoSuntory sungoliath’s Hirotoki Onozawa leaves Kobe Steel’s Takeomi Ito (far left) Takafumi Hirao (second from left) and Osami Yatsuhashi in his wake as he sprints away for the
second of his four tries during the opening game of the Top League at Tokyo’s National
Stadium on Saturday. Suntory won 54-31.

Following a range of pre-game ceremonies at National Stadium in Tokyo, Suntory Sungoliath and Kobe Steel got down to business on the field, and while there were a few too many handling errors to call it a classic, it bodes well for a season of exciting rugby as both sides looked to capitalize their strengths to the fullest — the speed and flair of Suntory against the experience and power of the Steelers.

In the end, Suntory proved too fit for its opponent and outscored the Steelers by eight tries to four, all 12 tries coming from backs as Sungoliath opened the new era of professional rugby in Japan with a 54-31 victory.

“We did it the hard way, but a win’s a win,” said Suntory lock Jamie Washington after the game.

Kobe head coach Mitsutake Hagimoto said that it had been a hard game but that “Kobe made too many errors as a result of the pressure put on us by Suntory.”

In its simplified form, the game was a match-up between the youth of Suntory, as exemplified by Shin Kanto and Onozawa, and the thirty-somethings of Kobe led by Akira Yoshida and Yukio Motoki.

Last year’s Meiji University flyhalf Kanto showed a lot of poise in leading the Suntory backline and besides scoring a well-taken individual try, his quick hands and distribution helped winger Onozawa to a first-half hat trick of tries.

“He’s only young but he varies the play and is a great tackler,” said Peter Ryan, who knows a thing or two about tackling having spent most of his career playing rugby league with the Brisbane Broncos.

Lining up in the Steelers backline were two of the most experienced players in Japan in centers Yoshida and Motoki.

Yoshida in particular rolled back the years and his support play and angles of running had a hand in all of the Steelers tries as the team of veterans from Kobe tried to keep up with their younger and fitter opponents.

In the end, however, youthful exuberance won through and Suntory ran away with the game in the last 20 minutes with Onozawa the star of the show, scoring four tries and having a hand in a couple of others. His ability to break tackles and get through the tiniest of gaps will have been noted with a certain amount of caution by the teams Japan faces in the World Cup in October.

“Suntory played as we used to play,” said Kobe flanker Dean Anglesey.

“We tried to keep it tight in the forwards and had them in the scrums but we’ve got an aging squad and ran out of steam,” the former Waikato Chief added.

Suntory head coach Yoji Nagatomo was pleased with the win but said, “If it had been an examination then we would not have passed the test.”

The crowd of 35,000, however, went away knowing that the level of rugby in Japan can only keep on improving, while Japan coach Shogo Mukai will be pleased none of the national team members were injured.

The Japan Rugby Football Union can be very happy with the way things turned out on Saturday.

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