OSAKA - The Panasonic Wild Knights and Suntory Sungoliath will face off in the Japan Rugby Top League final following two contrasting semifinals Saturday at Yanmar Stadium Nagai.
Panasonic, which finished the regular season unbeaten and atop the White Conference, beat Toyota Verblitz 17-11, while defending champion Suntory, winner of the Red Conference, hammered Yamaha Jubilo 49-7.
Takuya Yamasawa displayed his full array of skills as he passed, kicked and ran Panasonic into the final as the Wild Knights fought off a valiant effort from Jake White’s Verblitz in front of 10,099.
The Wild Knights flyhalf created tries for Kenki Fukuoka and Digby Ioane, and added two conversions and a penalty goal with the boot.
“It wasn’t a great game,” said Panasonic coach Robbie Deans, who commented at halftime that he was frustrated with the way his team was playing. “But it was the outcome we wanted. We came here to qualify for the final and we’ve done that.”
In the second game of the doubleheader, Daishi Murata, Kotaro Matsushima, Shota Emi and Matt Giteau all crossed in the opening 40 minutes as Suntory had it wrapped up by halftime.
The final, to be played at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground on Jan. 13, also doubles as the All-Japan Championship decider following a change to the way the domestic season reaches its conclusion.
There are three other playoff blocks to determine fifth to 16th positions with the bottom side automatically relegated.
The Toshiba Brave Lupus and Kobe Kobelco Steelers will play for fifth spot following wins over the NEC Green Rockets and Ricoh Black Rams, respectively.
A try seven minutes from time by Tomoyuki Ochiai helped Kobe win 19-10, while Rugby World Cup 2011 winner Richard Kahui grabbed a brace for Toshiba in its 29-22 victory.
In the first round of the playoffs for ninth to 12th place, the NTT Communications Shining Arcs defeated the Toyota Industries Shuttles 27-19 and the Canon Eagles edged the Kubota Spears 31-30.
Meanwhile, the Kintetsu Liners and NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes will battle it out to avoid the automatic drop to the second-tier Top Challenge League.
Kintetsu lost 29-8 to the Munakata Sanix Blues, while the Coca-Cola Red Hurricanes picked the perfect time to record their first win of the season as they beat Docomo 19-14 thanks to a last-minute try from Masafumi Tanabe.
The Honda Heat will replace the losers of the Docomo-Liners game in the top flight, while the winners join Sanix and Coca-Cola in playing one-off promotion/relegation playoff games against the teams finishing second to fourth in the TCL — the Hino Red Dolphins, Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars and Kyuden Voltex.
In the first semifinal in Osaka, Toyota started brightly and got on the board first thanks to a seventh-minute penalty by Lionel Cronje.
But the Wild Knights soon settled down, and a good run by David Pocock and a long pass from Yamasawa was finished off by Fukuoka in the 13th minute.
Australian international Ioane followed him onto the scoresheet 23 minutes later following a good break by Yamasawa as the Wild Knights led 14-3 at the break.
The Panasonic No. 10 added a penalty nine minutes into the second stanza before Jamie Henry and Cronje closed the gap — the former with a well-taken try and the latter with a penalty.
The closing minutes saw Toyota threaten to pull off an upset but the Wild Knights defense held firm, allowing them to head to Tokyo next week looking for their fifth league title, the same number Suntory will be hoping to end the season with.