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Panasonic battles through pain barrier to claim Top League crown

Kyodo

Panasonic Wild Knights repeated as Top League champions on Sunday following a 30-12 win over Yamaha Jubilo in front of 16,304 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.

Wild Knights captain Shota Horie became the first player to lift the new LIXIL Cup following a thrilling and bruising encounter that saw a number of Panasonic players playing through the pain barrier.

Horie announced after the game he would not be playing Super Rugby this year for the Melbourne Rebels as planned as he needed a neck operation to solve a longstanding nerve issue. Berrick Barnes seemed to be limping straight from the kick-off, while Daniel Heenan also battled through injury before being replaced in the 56th minute.

“Every player was used and every player was needed,” said Panasonic head coach Robbie Deans. “We were stretched right to the limit today.”

While Horie will be watching Super Rugby at home on TV, teammate Akihito Yamada gave fans watching the game live in New Zealand and South Africa a glimpse of what he will be bringing to the table for the Western Force.

The Wild Knights flyer scored a superb try after skinning Japan fullback Ayumu Goromaru for pace and also set up a try for Barnes with a clever kick ahead following another superb burst down the left flank, as he finished up as the postseason MVP.

Tomoki Kitagawa also reminded everyone why he is the second highest try scorer in league history with Panasonic’s first and fourth tries as the Wild Knights — who won the title in 2010-2011 as Sanyo — out-thought and out-tackled Jubilo.

“We had to deny them their access points,” said Deans. “Most importantly we had to stop their momentum through the midfield, which they used to such good effect in the second stage of the season. By doing that, they weren’t able to use the width as they have been in recent games.”

On a sunny but cold day in the nation’s capital, Panasonic had the advantage of a swirling wind that seemed to change direction an hour or so before the kickoff, and Yamaha coach Katsuyuki Kiyomiya admitted he wasn’t unhappy with the halftime scoreline that saw his team trail 23-12.

“I thought we would be around 14 points down at the break,” he said. “We had our chances in the second half, but we couldn’t finish them off and Panasonic prevented us playing to our strengths.”

Those strengths had seen Kyosuke Horie score from a driving maul to give Yamaha an early 7-3 lead. But Panasonic hit back thanks to the skill and pace of Barnes, Yamada and Kitagawa, before a yellow card to Keita Inagaki resulted in Yamaha getting a second try through Shinji Nakazono as they made the most of their numerical advantage.

But that was as good as it got for Jubilo.

With the Panasonic defense to the fore, Yamaha didn’t seem to have a plan B and the second half saw just one score after Kitagawa benefited from a superb offload from JP Pietersen.

“The most pleasing thing today was our defense,” said Deans. “That shows how much you care. This is a really close group. They are close friends and enjoy each other’s company off the field and I am really pleased at the way they turned up for each other today.”

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