Panasonic Wild Knights secured their third consecutive Top League title this afternoon in dramatic fashion by triumphing 27-26 over fellow Kanto-based club Toshiba Brave Lupus. Wild Knights looked to have wrapped the final after working a 13-point lead in the second half but Toshiba's 82nd-minute try meant Francois Steyn's conversion would decide the final. Alas. Steyn's conversion went wide and Panasonic were crowned champions.
Both Toshiba and Panasonic named unchanged starting XVs from their respective semi-final triumphs last weekend in front a capacity crowd packed inside of Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium.
Both teams went over for early tries inside the opening 10 minutes. Panasonic back-row Tadasuke Nishihara first crossed the line, with the ever-reliable Hayden Parker adding the extras. Japan national team captain Michael Leitch then responded two minutes later for Toshiba to square things at 7-7.
Francois Steyn's pin-point kick into touch paved the way for Toshiba to take control of the game at the mid-way point of the first half. Lupus, in their usual red and black, produced one of their textbook driving mauls from the resulting line-out as the Chichibunomiya crowd roared them over the line. Hiroshi Yamamoto the scorer for Lupus this time.
In a topsy-turvy final, Panasonic seemed to have drawn level two minutes later when the ball was passed wide to winger Kentaro Kodama on the blind side, who touched the ball down in the corner after being hauled down by Leitch. The referee blew for a try at first and only when the replay was shown on the big screen did he change his decision, after much uproar from the Toshiba bench and players alike. No try, was the verdict uponreferral to the video referee.
Toshiba couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet and still had to work the ball away from their try line, which they ultimately failed to do, generously handing over possession to Panasonic. Japan international and soon-to-be Sunwolves player Shota Horie crossed the line for the Wild Knights, having picked a hole in the Toshiba defence a metre out. Conversion successful too and the scores were level again.
Parker added a penalty two minutes from the break before Francois Steyn came up short with his drop-goal attempt from the half-way line, leaving the final delicately poised at the half-way stage with Panasonic leading 17-14.
Miscommunication between Steyn and winger and Toshiaki Hirose following a kick from Panasonic’s Fumiaki Tanaka had Toshiba under the cosh on their own try line. Lupus will have considered themselves fortunate not to have conceded a fourth try from that spell of Wild knights pressure, with Parker kicking for three points after Toshiba rather shamelessly collapsed the scrum.
Panasonic often dominated the territorial battle in the second half, leaving Toshiba stuck inside their own half for large portions of the match. A rare break from scrum half Tanaka saw him come within metres of the try line. The ball then found JP Pietersen and the Springbok found the corner to hand his side an 11-point cushion with just under 20 minutes left to play. Parker converted to maintain his 100% success-rate throughout the duration of the campaign.
It seemed that would be the way it stayed with Toshiba’s handling costing them dear at times. Replacement Nicolas Kraska, a Frenchman born in Thailand had other ideas though. He surged through a gap in the Wild Knights’ defence to run in his side’s third try of the game, converted by Steyn, and reduce the deficit to just six points with 10 minutes left.
The Tokyo crowd made their voices heard and got behind their hometown club in hope of a late winning try. And they were rewarded for their efforts. Steyn's 82nd-minute kick into the corner bounced into the path of Toyoshima, who touched down to make it 27-26. The stadium held its breath as the full-back readied himself for the kick. Wide. Heartbreak for the Springbok and Toshiba but another Top League trophy for Panasonic as their dominance continues.