15:25 27 January 2017
Rugby: Suntory looks for perfection, Panasonic looks for redemption
By Rich Freeman
TOKYO, Jan. 27, Kyodo
The domestic rugby season draws to a close this weekend with Suntory Sungoliath taking on Panasonic Wild Knights in the final of the All-Japan Championship and three spots in the Top League up for grabs.
On Sunday, Suntory will look to finish the season unbeaten and add the AJC to the Top League crown they won in such emphatic style.
But they are up against defending AJC champions Panasonic, who are bent on revenge having lost 45-15 when the sides met in Round 4 of the league campaign.
"It's good to have a playoff to conclude the year," said Wild Knights head coach Robbie Deans, whose side beat league runners-up Yamaha Jubilo 36-24 to reach the final.
"Suntory fully deserved to win the league. They played some great rugby and went unbeaten so it is fully warranted. We are excited to have the opportunity but know there is a lot of work to do."
His Suntory counterpart, Keisuke Sawaki, also talked about the effort his team needed to put in after they were made to work hard to beat Teikyo University 54-29 in the other semifinal.
Sawaki said the attitude of his team was "shameful" and that his team would need to reflect on that performance and lift their game to a higher level.
It was a point expanded upon by Suntory captain Yutaka Nagare.
"There were times when we weren't playing at Top League standard," he said. "Panasonic are getting stronger and it will be a battle of guts."
The game at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground features a number of classic matchups.
Australian legends George Smith and David Pocock go head-to-head in the back row, while the tussle between Joe Wheeler and Daniel Heenan in the line-out will have a big impact on which side has more ball to attack with.
"We probably didn't prepare properly for the new format. We should have approached the league games against Suntory and Yamaha as though they were semifinals," said Panasonic lock Heenan in reference to Panasonic's two losses this season that saw them finish third in the league.
Meanwhile in the backs, the league's top points scorer, Suntory's Kosei Ono, and try getter, teammate Takaaki Nakazuru, will be up against Takuya Yamasawa and Akihito Yamada. Though Ono believes the game will be won up front.
"All the work is done up front," he said. "Our pack has been huge for us this season. They create the space, and then fortunately we have the skill and speed to finish things off."
A day earlier, three games will complete the long process to determine which sides will play in the Top League next season and which will compete in the new national second division, the Top Challenge League.
Top East champions Mitsubishi Dynaboars play Toyota Industries Shuttles, who finished the regular Top League season in 15th place, in Nagoya. Top East runners-up Hino Red Dolphins take on Coca-Cola Red Sparks (14th in TL) in Fukuoka while Top Kyushu champions Kyuden Voltex play Kintetsu Liners (13th in TL) in Osaka.
NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, who went unbeaten in Top West and the Top Challenge Series were automatically promoted while Honda Heat, who finished last in the Top League, have been relegated.