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It took just two minutes for the 168-cm, 88-kg Sadanobu Imari to realize that all the pre-season niceties were over and that the rugby season proper was under way on Saturday.

News photoKobe Kobelco Steelers players celebrate after beating Toshiba Brave Lupus 15-12 at Osaka’s Hanazono Stadium in their Top League opener on Saturday.

Taking a short pass from Yamaha Jubilo flyhalf Leon MacDonald, the “pocket-battleship” center was pummeled to the ground in an all-embracing tackle by the 187-cm, 101-kg Alama Ieremia as Yamaha took on Suntory Sungoliath in their Top League opener at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya.

Imari, however, had the last laugh as Yamaha started its season in style winning 21-14, in a game described by MacDonald as “more like the rugby we play in New Zealand,” and by Yamaha coach Grant Batty as “like a boxing match, with Yamaha producing the right combinations in the second half after a split decision in the first half.”

The realization that there is no room for error in this year’s competition was evident from the start with the boot dominating the scoreboard in the first half.

Suntory has probably attempted just half a dozen penalties in the last five years yet Toru Kurihara slotted three in the first half as the Sungoliath played a more conservative brand of rugby than in recent years. However, Yamaha responded with two penalties from Nathan Williams and one on the stroke of halftime from MacDonald as the teams went into the break level at 9-9.

The second half saw both defenses hold firm — though Williams could have perhaps done better with a two-man overlap in the 50th minute — and chances were few and far between. But that all changed in the space of three minutes as MacDonald showed why he was good enough to win 29 caps for the All Blacks.

In the 73rd minute, the Yamaha pack took a scrum against the head close to the Suntory line and the former Canterbury player managed to offload in the tackle to Koji Tomioka, who sprinted over for the game’s opening try.

MacDonald added the extras and then put in a teasing kick behind the Suntory try line that totally bamboozled Daigo Yamashita — with Takanobu Horikawa getting the luck of the bounce to score.

The former Waseda captain made up for his howler with a fine individual try in the 81st minute, but it was too little too late as time ran out on Suntory.

“You can’t defend your line when your pack is going backwards,” was Suntory defense coach Peter Ryan’s assessment of the opening try.

“Other than that our backs defended very well at first phase and the tight five were good. Perhaps our match fitness level wasn’t what it should be.”

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