The coaching genius of Robbie Deans led Panasonic to a fifth Japanese title as the Wild Knights brought the curtain down on the Top League era with a 31-26 win over Suntory Sungoliath in Tokyo.
The former Crusaders and Wallabies boss, who has won five Super Rugby finals, a Tri-Nations decider, and three previous Top League finales, delivered a strategic a masterclass to largely shut down a free-scoring Suntory outfit that had scored 73 tries in its nine previous games.
While a late wobble allowed Suntory to close the gap with two tries in the final 10 minutes, Panasonic’s well organised defence and ability to turn its pressure into points left All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett and his teammates too great a deficit to chase down.
Although Suntory has Australian Eddie Jones as its Director of Rugby and featured the former Wallaby loose forward Sean McMahon and Queensland lock Harry Hockings in its match day squad, the Australian influence also flowed heavily on the Panasonic performance.
As well as the planning of Deans, who finished his time in Australia with a superior winning record to Jones, as well as being the Wallabies’ most capped test coach, Australian-raised centre Dylan Riley and the Brisbane-schooled loose forward Ben Gunter were also key performers as the Wild Knights avenged two previous defeats to Suntory in the final.
No.8 Jack Cornelsen, 39-year-old lock Daniel Heenan, and lively winger Semisi Tupou also contributed strongly to the Wild Knights’ success.
Riley rocked Suntory in just the fifth minute, as the suffocating Panasonic defensive pressure saw Barrett throw a wild pass, which the Aussie picked off to run 60 metres for the game’s opening try.
Under a level of defensive pressure that they had not been exposed to earlier in the competition, Suntory also found it difficult to slow the speed of the Wild Knights’ ball delivery from the breakdown, with Gunter herculean in his work removing opposition bodies.
The Thai-born forward paid for it at one point, requiring treatment after copping a high shot from McMahon, who was fortunate to remain on the field for the infringement.
Luckily, Panasonic didn’t lose Gunter for long either and he returned to continue his forceful presence in the contact area.
The game provided a special moment when Panasonic’s 28-year-old flyer, the Japanese Rugby World Cup star Kenki Fukuoka, showed a brilliant piece of skill to remain in play while airborne as he forced the ball inside of the corner post to score the Wild Knights’ second try.
Fukuoka’s 14th try of a season he wasn’t initially going to play, it was also the last of a glittering career which has ended today, as he retires to focus on a new life in medicine.
The five-pointer helped push Panasonic to a 23-7 halftime advantage, which became 28-12 when the Tongan-born Japanese international prop Asaeli Ai Valu rammed his way over from close range with 25 minutes remaining.
That remained the score until Suntory halfback Saito Naoto’s 70 th minute try revived the contest, drawing the favourites to within nine points.
A calmly taken-penalty goal by replacement flyhalf Takuya Yamasawa gave the Wild Knights breathing space, and it proved enough despite the 79 th minute try scored by Suntory fullback Seiya Ozaki.
The win allowed Panasonic to draw level with Suntory and the Toshiba Brave Lupus with five titles from the competition’s 20 years, as the Top League ends, and a new professional competition begins in Japan next year.