Suntory Sungoliath were crowned Top League champions for the fifth time on Saturday thanks to a 12-8 win over Panasonic Wild Knights at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
“That was the best we have played all season,” said Suntory coach Keisuke Sawaki, whose side not only defended its league title but also the All-Japan Rugby Championship trophy, which it won for the eighth time following the introduction of a revamped schedule for the domestic season.
“We showed a lot of patience, never panicked and communicated well throughout the game. It really was a good performance.”
In a pulsating, physical final played in front of a crowd of 23,416, first-half tries from Ryoto Nakamura and Shota Emi and a conversion from Matt Giteau proved just enough to beat a brave Wild Knights side that was forced to play most of the game without Berrick Barnes and who also lost David Pocock at halftime to injury.
“We came up short today but contributed to what was a great final,” said Panasonic coach Robbie Deans, who saw his side lose for the first time this season.
At the other end of the table, Kintetsu Liners have been relegated to the second-tier Top Challenge League after they were beaten 21-13 by NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
TCL champions Honda Heat will replace Kintetsu in the top flight, while Munakata Sanix Blues, Coca-Cola Red Sparks and Docomo have to play one-off promotion/relegation playoff games on Jan. 20 against the teams finishing second to fourth in the second division.
Sanix downed the Red Sparks 32-5 on Saturday to finish 13th in the Top League and will play Kyuden Voltex. Coca-Cola will take on Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars, while the Red Hurricanes will play TCL runners-up Hino Red Dolphins.
In the day’s other top-flight game, two tries from Male Sa’u helped Yamaha Jubilo beat Toyota Verblitz 28-10 to claim third place.
At a packed Chichibunomiya, Suntory got off to the best possible start with Nakamura crossing in the fourth minute following a clever kick ahead from Giteau.
Despite having 14 men on the field with Barnes down injured, the Wild Knights responded with Daniel Heenan powering over four minutes later.
But it was Suntory that went into the changing sheds 12-5 up after Emi latched onto a long pass from Giteau in the 33rd minute to go over in the corner.
Panasonic’s task was made even harder with Pocock forced off at halftime, despite having earlier passed a head injury assessment. And though the Wild Knights dominated possession and territory, the Suntory defense, with Nakamura, Hendrik Tui, Kotaro Matsushima and Daishi Murata to the fore, was more than a match.
“With Pocock off the field, we had much more opportunity to control the breakdown,” said Sawaki.
Barnes’ replacement Takuya Yamasawa eventually closed the gap with a penalty in the 56th minute but that was the end of the scoring as both teams tackled themselves to a standstill.
“That was an international-standard game and a great advertisement for Japanese rugby,” said Suntory captain Yutaka Nagare.
Despite his disappointment at losing, Deans was in agreement.
“Without doubt today’s encounter was beyond anything we have experienced before,” he said. “We just couldn’t put the ball down over the chalk. That was the difference.”