The Sanyo Wild Knights will always remember their first time, even if it is likely their last.
Playing an inspired second half, Sanyo outmaneuvered Suntory Sungoliath for a 28-23 victory Sunday at Prince Chichibu Rugby Memorial Ground in Tokyo, giving the Wild Knights their first Top League playoff title.
The crowd of 14,390 most likely also saw the Wild Knights’ final Top League triumph under Sanyo’s name, as Panasonic announced in December that it would be incorporating Sanyo as a fully owned subsidiary.
“We were fighting as hard as possible for the Finals Cup under the Sanyo name,” Sanyo captain Seiichi Shimomura said. “I am very happy. It will remain in the records forever that the Sanyo Wild Knights won the Top League Cup this day.”
Battling a chilly southern wind, the teams endured frigid, snowy conditions. The match began on a somber note, paying tribute to Japan women’s player Chie Tanaka, who died in a traffic accident the day before.
It was not until the second half that the Wild Knights warmed up. Trailing 11-6 at the break, Sanyo was forced to come from behind.
While Atsushi Tanabe missed an early penalty kick in the second half, in the 47th minute Sanyo successfully forced a turnover for South Korean flanker Young Nam Yu to score a try in the exact same corner where Suntory right wing Yasunori Nagatomo landed one in the first half. Tanabe made sure to place the conversion.
One minute later, mercurial Sanyo wing Atsushi Yamada, named Most Valuable Player, scored a superb try from another turnover by Sanyo. While Tanabe missed the conversion, and a penalty kick shortly after, he successfully put through another penalty two minutes later.
By then, the Wild Knights had already changed the game’s flow, but they weren’t finished.
In the 61st minute, Suntory’s fatigue showed when Sanyo managed to push through a rolling maul that saw substitute flanker Tadasuke Nishihara touch down with the ball. Tanabe converted successfully.
Suntory brought in world-class scrum half George Gregan in the 63rd minute, impacting the side’s fortunes immediately. Gregan, who holds a record 139 caps for Australia, played a big part immediately, touching down six minutes before full time. Nicholas missed the conversion, but Gregan set up Nagatomo for another try within five minutes. Suntory substitute fly-half Peter Hewat kicked the conversion goal as the sirens went off, signaling Sanyo’s victory.
“This is our fourth final, and we won for the first time,” Shimomura said. “Every year we aimed for this. This year, we made it. I am glad we could play for the whole 80 minutes. In the halftime, we just said, ‘Don’t panic. If we keep on defending, a chance will definitely come our way.’ “
Sanyo definitely had work to do in setting up the second half’s 10-point swing.
The Sanyo defense first cracked seven minutes before halftime, when Suntory scrum half Atsushi Hiwasa gained the ball from an opening from his captain, No. 8 Juntaro Takemoto, setting up Nagatomo to cross over in the far right; where Nicholas missed the conversion.
“We won the first half,” Suntory head coach Eddie Jones said. “For 20 minutes in the second half we played poorly. We gained back our spirit in the last bit, but the 20-minute period in the second half cost us the game.”
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