• Kyodo

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The Panasonic Wild Knights earned a shot at their fifth Japan Rugby Top League championship after dismantling Toyota Verblitz 48-21 in Saturday’s semifinal at Hanazono Rugby Stadium.

Kenki Fukuoka scored a hat trick of tries, while fellow Japan international Rikiya Matsuda racked up 21 points, including three from a drop goal, in the semifinal played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus state of emergency in Osaka Prefecture.

Next week’s final against the winner of Sunday’s semi between Suntory Sungoliath and Kubota Spears will be Fukuoka’s swan song, with the 2019 World Cup star set to trade his rugby boots for a stethoscope as he focuses on studying to become a doctor.

“We knew it would be a tough game, so we prepared thoroughly,” Matsuda said. “Our defense kept giving us the ball, and that proved to be the difference.”

“Now we want to do well in the final and send (Fukuoka) off a winner.”

The end arrived sooner for 35-year-old Verbitz No. 8 and former New Zealand captain Kieran Read, who said his days earning a living as a rugby player ended with Saturday’s game.

Doctor-to-be Fukuoka opened the game by flying down the left touchline in tandem with fullback Ryuji Noguchi to score from the opening kickoff, but Verblitz hit back with three tries — one from Masato Furukawa and a brace from Taichi Takahashi.

The introduction of hooker Shota Horie in the 21st minute immediately changed the Wild Knights’ fortunes. The Panasonic pack began dominating, and Matsuda kicked 12 straight points from three penalties and his drop goal.

Matsuda, however, was penalized for not releasing the ball in the 35th minute, allowing Lionel Cronje to kick Verblitz into halftime with an 18-17 lead.

Their grip on the game was shakier than the scoreboard indicated, however, with Panasonic tackling better and dominating the scrums.

Cronje and Matsuda exchanged penalties to keep it a one-point game until Takuya Yamasawa scored a try in the 60th minute, just three minutes after entering the match. Matsuda kicked a difficult touchline conversion to make it 27-21 to Panasonic.

Fukuoka scored his second in the 69th minute, finishing off a blistering run by Shota Fukui, and Matsuda once more proved a touchline marksman to add the extras and put the Wild Knights up 34-21.

The wheels fell off for Verblitz at that point, and the scoreboard gave a better indication of Panasonic’s overall performance following rapid-fire tries by Dylan Riley and Fukuoka.

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