TOKYO, JAPAN – Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground was back to business after a month-long postponement of the season due to the Rugby World Cup. Japan’s 9th Top League season kicked-off in Tokyo; Shizuoka and Osaka on Saturday with the most anticipated game of the starters being Top League champions Panasonic Wild Knights versus All Japan champions Suntory Sungoliath.
Lending several players to the Japan squad for the World Cup, Panasonic starts the season with injuries to number 8 Ryu Koliniasi Holani and lock Justin Ives, bringing in former Springboks centre Jaque Fourie to the team just four days before season kick-off. Retired fly half Tony Brown takes on new responsibilities as backs coach for the Knights, under new head coach Norifumi Nakajima.
Sungoliath also started with a reinvigorated team under 2007 World Champion Sprinboks adviser Eddie Jones’ second year coaching, with former Wallabies flanker George Smith playing in the opening game, while other star recruits to the team include former Boks lock Danie Rossouw and scrum half Fourie du Preez. USA Eagle captain Todd Clever started on the bench on Saturday, while Manu Samoa’s Tusi Pisiata played at fly half.
Both teams showed off their new jerseys, Sungoliath showcasing a streamlined waspy design of yellow-black, while Panasonic, that changed its name from Sanyo after a company takeover, switched to ultramarine blue from their traditional red.
Panasonic’s defense was firmly in place for the first thirty minutes, putting pressure on Suntory that started with repeated handling errors. Panasonic’s first half scores came from three penalty kicks from full back Atsushi Tanabe in the third, twenty-fourth and twenty-seventh minutes, answered by one in the twentieth by Suntory full back Peter Hewat.
Panasonic defense started to crack under Suntory offensive after the first thirty minutes, when Suntory openside flanker Takamichi Sasaki broke away with the ball deep into Panasonic territory. The yellow team’s first try came two minutes later, Hewat passing spreading the ball wide on left to outside centre Koji Taira, who set up lock Koji Shinozuka for the try, that Hewat converted. Hewat’s penalty kick in the 38th minute sent the two teams to half time at 9-16.
“I am very proud of our players, they gave a good performance, keeping their defense until the end. Unfortunately we couldn’t retain the ball for longer periods so we didn’t have enough attacking options that could have favored our play style. We should have needed more patience.” – said Nakajima.
Tanabe was sent to the sin bin for obstruction three minutes before full time, and Suntory capitalizing on that, started the second half with an instant try by Man of the Match Sasaki, that Hewat converted.
Eight minutes later Pisiata gained the ball from the scrum with a long sprint, and with an inside pass Suntory inside centre Ryan Nicholas placed the team’s third and final try in the far right, that Hewat failed to convert.
Panasonic came back to the game in the final thirty minutes, with right wing Tomoki Kitagawa scoring a try running from half line and with Tanabe’s conversion sliding in from hitting the goal post. Seven minutes later Panasonic #8 Hendrik Tui set up hooker Shota Horie for his team’s second try that Tanabe converted. Tanabe placed another penalty four minutes later, bringing the two sides to an exciting close, but due to a successful penalty kick after a missed drop goal by Hewat, the table stayed unturned as Suntory gained their first win in the tournament.
“Girigiri desu ne [That was close]” – answered Jones in Japanese after the game. – “We played well in patches, but we didn’t have the consistency that we need, we made simple handling errors. What I was pleased with is that we lost the final in similar circumstances; this year we grafted fair enough points to win the game. Panasonic is an excellent team, they keep coming at you, so it is a great way to start the season for us.”
Questioned about his new star recruits and team at the start of the season, Jones commented: “Today was a very top quality game, George Smith was surprised by the intensity of the contest, it is a great thing for Japanese rugby. Some of our players are only 85% fit, Rossouw is 5K overweight, he was hunting in South Africa in the last 3 weeks, and I think he was successful. And the World Cup members are not 100%, so we need to work on that. We started a new attacking shape, the players had to come back to learn something new. The team that played today only had four-five training sessions before today. But I am pleased with the result.”