KOBE – Suntory Sungoliath were crowned Japan Rugby Top League champions Saturday following a 27-15 win over Kobe Kobelco Steelers.
The victory at Noevir Stadium sees Keisuke Sawaki’s team finish the season unbeaten on 69 points, two more than Yamaha Jubilo, who beat eighth-placed Toyota Verblitz 27-8.
Hendrik Tui, Shota Emi, and Kotaro Matsushima each crossed the chalk for the Sungoliath with man-of-the-match Kosei Ono kicking three conversions and two penalty goals.
“We set out to be the challenger and played each match as such,” said Sawaki, who took over in the offseason from Andy Friend after Suntory finished ninth last season.
“We all shared the same culture and work rate and the same sense of hunger to achieve this win.”
Suntory — which now has four Top League titles to its name — will look to complete the double when it takes part in the season ending All-Japan Championship along with Yamaha, third-placed Panasonic Wild Knights and collegiate champion Teikyo University.
“Believing in our style was the biggest thing,” said captain Yutaka Nagare. “We trained really hard to regain our pride and that gave us the confidence and self-belief.”
Panasonic finished its league campaign with a 15-14 win over Toshiba to finish 13 points above Kobe and ensure the Brave Lupus finished a worst-ever ninth, the club having previously never finished outside the top three.
The teams finishing fourth to 12th play no more rugby this season, and the same goes for Honda, which was relegated last week. The Heat finished their time in the top-flight with a 28-26 loss against the seventh-placed Canon Eagles.
Meanwhile, the sides finishing 13th to 15th play a one-off promotion/relegation game against the fourth, third and second ranked teams, respectively, from the regional leagues.
Kintetsu Liners finished 13th thanks to a 26-24 win over Toyota Industries Shuttles, who ended the regular season in 15th place.
Coca-Cola Red Sparks were 14th after losing 33-14 to Ricoh Black Rams, who jumped to a best-ever sixth-placed finish.
In the day’s other games, NTT Communications Shining Arcs beat Kubota 27-17 to finish fifth to the Spear’s 12th, while Munakata Sanix Blues held on to beat NEC Green Rockets 26-24, the sides finishing 10th and 11th, respectively.
Playing under the roof at Noevir Stadium — one of the venues for Rugby World Cup 2019 — Suntory had to survive an early scare and a second-half yellow card to overcome a fired up Steelers side, for whom South African World Cup winner Jaque Fourie was playing his last game before retiring.
Fourie’s compatriot Andries Bekker used his 208-cm, 121-kg frame to work his way over the line in the eighth minute and Ryohei Yamanaka added a penalty as Kobe went ahead 8-0.
“It was a nervous start as we had a lot of players playing their first final as it were,” Suntory assistant coach Peter Hewat told Kyodo News. “Kobe really challenged us, moved the ball around and came to play.”
But Suntory slowly played itself into the game allowing Tui and Emi to touch down for a 14-8 lead at the break.
Matsushima extended it when he broke three tackles in the 43rd minute, only for Yamanaka to power over in reply from the restart.
At 21-15 and with Emi sent to the naughty chair for a deliberate knock-on, Suntory had to dig in deep, particularly as Yamaha was starting to hit its stride in the game at Yamaha Stadium — though Hewat said he had no idea what was going on in the other game.
“We were just worrying about our own game as our destiny was in our hands.”
With Kobe applying all the pressure, it was the Suntory forwards who responded, winning a tighthead scrum and allowing Ono to clear the lines.
The flyhalf’s reliable right boot then made sure there was no way back for Kobe and ruined Yamaha’s outside hopes of the title as he punished Steelers’ indiscipline to put 12 points between the teams.
“To win that scrum close to our line when we were a man down was really important,” said the Australian.
Ono finished the season as the top scorer with 187 points — courtesy of three tries, 56 conversions and 20 penalty goals — and the plethora of man-of-the-match awards he has picked up this season should see him named season MVP at the Top League awards on Sunday night.
“Kosei kept things calm when we were under pressure and directed the guys around. He’s been invaluable all year,” said Hewat.
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