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What’s better than back-to-back championships? How about a three-peat?

The Sanyo Wild Knights made it three cups in a row, topping the Toyota Verblitz 22-17 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground on Sunday in the 47th All-Japan Rugby Football Championship.

Weather conditions factored into the afternoon in just about every way imaginable, as overnight rain left the muddy field with little grass for the rugby season’s final match, played before a shy crowd of 11,479.

“We aimed to play at a high pace, move the ball wider and at high tempo, but the ground conditions restricted our movement,” said disappointed Toyota Verblitz captain Ippei Asada, whose team went to the break with a 12-0 lead.

Toyota dominated the first half of the game, with new recruit and former Super 14 Chiefs flanker Hayden Hopgood grounding a brace of tries in the ninth and 18th minutes.

The first placed from a team effort on the far left from a rolling maul gained from a Toyota lineout near the Sanyo try line. Flyhalf Orene Ai’fi missed the conversion from the difficult angle.

The second Hopgood try came from Ai’fi capitalizing on a Sanyo handling mistake spreading the ball wide. Receiving pass from national team captain Takashi Kikutani, Hopgood sprinted into the try area from half-field, and Ai’fi made the conversion this time.

The victors, meanwhile, had no luck early in the match.

In the 12th minute, Sanyo inside centre Masakazu Irie intercepted a Toyota pass, chasing down a forward kick and landing on the ball. Referee Shinji Aida called in the television match official, who ruled the move a knock-on. Sanyo remained unlucky in the first half, with fly-half Tony Brown opting to kick a penalty to touch, yielding in a loss of the ball due to Sanyo’s obstruction at the maul.

However, Sanyo roared back in the second half, overwhelming Toyota with a strong will to win.

“During the break our forwards leader, prop Tomokazu Soma and backs leader, Brown, both gathered their groups and gave advice, that stayed with us, in our hearts,” Sanyo captain centre Seiichi Shimomura said. “It helped to make us more focused and regain our concentration. Brown said, ‘Let’s take points in any way we can.’ “

The team took the former All Black’s advice to heart, and convincingly overpowered its opponent in the second half at the breakdown.

Sanyo’s first points came from fullback Atsushi Tanabe’s penalty kick three minutes into the second half. Nine minutes later, as Hopgood was sinbinned for repeated infringement, substitute hooker Shotaro Horie placed Sanyo’s first try, which Tanabe successfully converted.

The Wild Knights finally pulled ahead six minutes later. Brown gained the ball from the breakdown, spreading it wide, and Sanyo wing Tomoki Kitagawa grounded on Toyota territory, earning the team’s second try, which Tanabe converted.

Sanyo’s final score against the tiring Toyota side came seven minutes before full-time in a rolling maul that was pushed over with relative ease, as Sanyo open side flanker Daishi Wakamatsu placed the try. Tanabe missed the conversion.

Toyota closed the gap with two minutes remaining when fullback Steven Yates landed an individual try from a midfield sprint, as Sanyo No. 8 Ryu Koliniasi Holani and Toyota prop Takashi Kumagai were treated on field following a head-on collision. Ai’fi missed the conversion, setting the final margin of victory for Sanyo, which sealed its 50th year of existence with a hard-earned victory Sunday.

“Although we didn’t win, I am very proud of our performance; we played the Toyota way,” said Toyota head coach Ryuji Ishii, whose team last played in an All Japan final in 2007. “It was a very tight game, and you didn’t know who was going to win until the very end.”

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