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August 28, 2016 14:03

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18:03 24 January 2016

Rugby: Thrilling win earns Panasonic 3rd straight Top League crown

By Rich Freeman
TOKYO, Jan. 24, Kyodo

Panasonic Wild Knights won their third straight Top League crown Sunday, and fourth overall, thanks to a 27-26 victory over Toshiba Brave Lupus in a full-blooded, thrilling LIXIL Cup final at sold-out Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.

Hayden Parker's remarkable form with the boot, and Panasonic's depth in strength eventually proved too much for Toshiba, despite a sterling effort from Japan captain Michael Leitch and the rest of the Brave Lupus.

Playoff MVP Parker converted tries by Tadasuke Nishihara, Shota Horie and JP Pietersen and kicked two penalties -- to make it a perfect 28-from-28 for the season and 24-from-24 in the playoffs.

But he then had to watch from the sidelines as another prolific kicker in Francois Steyn had the chance to win the game at the death.

A try 90 seconds after the final hooter by Shohei Toyoshima gave the South African Rugby World Cup winner the opportunity to steal Parker's thunder.

But his kick drifted wide, denying Toshiba a sixth league title and allowing the Wild Knights to sink to their knees in relief and joy.

"What can you say? What a great conclusion to a great season of rugby in Japan," said Panasonic coach Robbie Deans.

"That had everything that makes the game what it is. A good contest up front. A tough contest at the breakdown and both teams risking their hand."

"Obviously the emotion would be very different if the kick had been successful at the death, but looking at the weight of the season and the weight of the encounter we probably warranted the outcome."

Most pundits had said before Sunday's final -- shown live or on delay in 95 countries worldwide -- that it was too close to call.

And so it proved as both sides punched and counter-punched, earning plaudits from fans worldwide on social media.

The try scoring in the first half was confined to the forwards as both packs looked to gain the upper hand.

Nishihara and Horie's efforts were canceled out by Leitch and Hiroshi Yamamoto, with Parker's first penalty being the difference between the two sides at halftime as Panasonic led 17-14.

Parker extended the lead shortly after the break with a second penalty before JP Pietersen -- a teammate of Steyn's in the 2007 World Cup winning side -- scored a superb try thanks to some good work by Fumiaki Tanaka, who launched the counterattack, and a great offload from Horie.

Parker added the extras from the sideline as Panasonic looked to have wrapped the game up.

But Toshiba hit back with a cracking try from Nicolas Kraska, converted by Takahiro Ogawa.

Referee Kyosuke Toda's decision to award a scrum four seconds from time allowed them one last chance to win the game and Toyoshima rounded off a great attack by getting on the end of a clever kick from Richard Kahui, albeit the bounce of the ball going the way of the Toshiba man.

With time up, it was do-or-die for Steyn.

But fortune was with the Wild Knights this time, allowing Horie to once again receive the LIXIL Cup.

"The difference between the two sides was the management of their halfbacks (Parker and Tanaka)," said Toshiba captain Yoshikazu Morita. "They really were excellent."

Earlier, a 68th minute try by Shuhei Awata proved to be the difference as Yamaha Jubilo beat Kobe Kobelco Steelers 26-22 to take third place.

Meanwhile in the Top Challenge Series for the top four regional sides, Munakata Sanix Blues beat Osaka Police 57-0 and Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars topped Kyuden Voltex 43-19.

Sanix will play NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, Mitsubishi take on NEC Green Rockets, Kyuden face Coca-Cola Red Sparks and the police play Ricoh Black Rams next week with the winners playing in the top flight next season.

==Kyodo

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