Panasonic Wild Knights survived an almighty late scare to become Top League champions for the third straight season after beating Toshiba Brave Lupus 27-26 in Sunday’s LIXIL Cup final.
South African winger JP Pietersen looked to have put the Wild Knights home and dry at Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground with a try that gave them a 13-point lead midway through the second half.
But a try by Toshiba substitute Nicolas Kraska reduced the deficit before a remarkable last-gasp attack after the hooter ended with Shohei Toyoshima crossing the line to leave the Brave Lupus needing only a conversion to snatch the title.
South African fullback Francois Steyn hooked the ball wide to hand Panasonic its fourth Top League title, however, denying Toshiba its first championship in six years.
“I couldn’t watch (the kick),” said Panasonic hooker Shota Horie. “I was just staring at the ground, praying that he would miss.”
Both teams exchanged two tries apiece in a tight first half, but Panasonic gradually took control of the game and coach Robbie Deans felt his side was a worthy champion despite the late drama.
“It was a great conclusion to what has been a great season of rugby in Japan,” said Deans. “It had everything that makes the game what it is. It was a great contest up front, at the set piece and at the breakdown, and had Toshiba risking their hand at the end and nearly profiting. It’s just the way a final should be.
“Obviously the emotion could have been very different if the kick had gone over at the death, but I think if you look at the overall season, we warranted this outcome.”
Panasonic seized the early initiative when Tadasuke Nishihara crashed over for a try in the fourth minute, but Toshiba replied instantly when Japan captain Michael Leitch shrugged off three attempted tackles to cross the line.
Toshiba began to turn the screw and was rewarded with another try when flanker Hiroshi Yamamoto touched down following a ferocious drive at the line.
Panasonic was then denied a try by the TMO when Kentaro Kodama looked to have scored in the corner. But Horie eventually crossed the line for the Wild Knights and Hayden Parker slotted the conversion to level the score at 14-14.
A Parker penalty one minute before halftime gave Panasonic the edge heading into the break, and the New Zealander extended the lead with another kick shortly after the restart.
Panasonic then put one hand on the trophy when Pietersen crossed the line in the 61st minute. Scrum half Fumiaki Tanaka outfoxed the Toshiba defense with a jinking run before feeding Horie, who popped the ball up to the Springbok winger to score in the corner.
But the Brave Lupus hauled themselves back into contention when Kraska broke through with just over 10 minutes remaining, and Toyoshima set up a dramatic finale when he touched down in the corner after the final hooter.
“It was a fitting game for the final, but I could feel the difference between the two teams,” said Toshiba coach Teppei Tomioka.
“Panasonic made basically no mistakes on the pitch today. That’s not something that you can teach overnight, but I have seen a lot of improvement from this team over the year. We just weren’t ready to win the title today.”
Earlier in the day, Yamaha Jubilo came back from a 17-5 halftime deficit to beat Kobe Kobelco Steelers 26-22 in the third/fourth-place playoff.
“If you have the opportunity to put the other team away and you don’t do it, and they score 21 unanswered points, then you have to give credit to the other team,” said Kobe coach Allister Coetzee.
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