Suntory Sungoliath will play Yamaha Jubilo for a spot in the Japan Rugby Top League final after both sides won hard-fought quarterfinals on Saturday.
Suntory held on by the skin of its teeth to beat the Kubota Spears 28-26 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, with flyhalf Matt Giteau’s trusty left boot the difference in a game in which the officials played a major role.
Yamaha, meanwhile, beat the NTT Communications Shining Arcs 33-21 at Yamaha Stadium in Shizuoka Prefecture.
“Winning is the only thing that matters in finals rugby,” said Suntory captain Yutaka Nagare, whose side was outscored three tries to none in the second half and had to withstand a fierce onslaught from the Spears to remain in the hunt for a third straight league title.
Sungoliath coach Keisuke Sawaki took the unusual step of asking journalists what they thought of the game, before telling them an even penalty count in the first half had been followed by a second half that saw Suntory penalized 10 times to Kubota’s two.
Not surprisingly, his counterpart Frans Ludeke saw things slightly differently.
“I thought we totally controlled the second half and for Suntory to keep us out took a special performance from them,” the South African said.
In the first two quarterfinals to determine ninth to 16th place, the NEC Green Rockets downed the Coca-Cola Red Sparks 43-17 and the Honda Heat downed the Munakata Sanix Blues 38-34.
The remaining two quarterfinal games in each bracket will be played Sunday, with the semifinals on Dec. 8 and 9 and the final round of games to determine positions on Dec. 15.
On a sunny day in the nation’s capital, Suntory made the most of two mistakes from Gerhard van den Heever to take an early lead.
First, the Kubota fullback kicked the ball dead from deep in his own half to hand Suntory field position from which Takaaki Nakazuru eventually crossed. And he then had a kick charged down in his own 22 by Yusuke Kajimura, who regathered and touched down to make it 12-0 with 19 minutes on the clock.
The rest of the half, however, was a more even affair with Suntory’s speed just providing the edge over Kubota’s more direct approach.
Sean McMahon crossed for Suntory’s third try and Giteau kicked two penalties, to go with two conversions, as Suntory went into the break 25-7 up. Kubota’s points came from a try by Takeo Suenaga, converted by van den Heever.
Two minutes into the second half, Suenaga was once again the recipient of some good work by his fellow forwards as Kubota came out firing. And most in the crowd of 11,770 thought the Spears had closed to within four points when Burger Odendaal went over between the sticks three minutes later.
But referee Kyosuke Toda reversed the decision after the TMO detected a knock-on much earlier in the build-up. Despite dominating territory and possession, the Spears were unable to score until the 67th minute when van den Heever touched down after the Sungoliath defense stopped for what they thought was a knock-on.
A penalty from Giteau six minutes earlier, however, had given Suntory a little leeway, and Ei Kawamuko’s converted try a minute from time left Kubota an agonizing two points short of dethroning the two-time defending champions.
“We gave ourselves opportunities to win the game,” rued Ludeke after seeing his side keep possession for close on five minutes after the hooter before a knock-on brought the drama to a close.