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Japanese Top League
Australian influence guides Suntory to glory
Rich Freeman
February 27, 2012
George Smith on the charge for Suntory © Japan Rugby Football Union
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Teams: Japan

Suntory Sungoliath got an immediate return from some high-profile signings when they took the 2011-12 Top League season, beating reigning champions Panasonic Wild Knights 47-28 in the playoff final.

Wallabies legend George Smith, who signed from Toulon in the off-season, was named both play-off and season most valuable player after scoring three tries in the final, while Fourie du Preez, who arrived in Japan after the World Cup, also touched down.

"I am very fortunate to be playing for such a great team," Smith said after the game. "It's nice to get MVP but it was very much a team performance. My role is no different from the rest of the team. I just try to do it as best I can."

The three-foreigner rule meant there was no place for du Preez's Springbok teammate Danie Rossouw - with coach Eddie Jones opting to start with Samoa flyhalf Tusi Pisi and naming U.S. Eagles captain Todd Clever on the bench ahead of Rossouw. Brave Blossoms centre Ryan Nicholas, who is in his seventh season in Japan, completed the scoring, weighing in with a try and five conversions and four penalties.

"I could see how much the team wanted to win today. There was no way we were going to lose that game today," said a delighted Jones after the game.

Another high-profile signing - Jaque Fourie who is with Panasonic for just this season before moving to Kobe Kobelco Steelers on a two-year deal - crossed twice for the Wild Knights. But the defensive intensity that saw Panasonic beat Toshiba in the semi-finals was missing as Suntory ran them ragged, with Smith, Takamichi Sasaki and Suntory captain Juntaro Takemoto ruling the breakdown.

The two clubs had opened the Top League season back in October with Suntory winning 31-26. Suntory went on to win ten straight before falling 21-18 to Toshiba Brave Lupus in contentious fashion.

Jones was unhappy with some comments made after the game by some of the Toshiba players, while the Brave Lupus camp were incensed by comments made by Jones to the referee during the game. This being Japan though, the final didn't actually mark the finale of the season. And Jones is hoping his team gets one last chance at Toshiba, who finished the regular season in second spot behind Suntory.

The top four finishers in the league, two wild cards (from sides finishing 5th to 8th), the top two university sides, the No. 1 regional side and the national club champion battle it out for the All-Japan Championship, with Suntory and Panasonic getting byes through to the semi-final. Toshiba play collegiate champions Teikyo University in Round Two, with a semifinal against Suntory the reward for the victors.

"We owe Toshiba," Jones said. "Apart from that final five minutes we would have had a perfect season."

NEC Green Rockets, who finished the regular season in fourth spot take on top regional side Canon Eagles in the other second-round game, with the winners slated to take on Panasonic. In addition to the All-Japan Championship, there are still two games remaining to confirm next season's Top League line-up.

Promotion and relegation into the top flight involves a convoluted series of playoffs, save for the bottom two sides in the league, who drop down automatically.

Honda Heat return to the regional leagues after just one season in the top flight, while Coca-Cola West Red Sparks will play in the Top Kyushu league next season after finishing bottom of the standings. The pair will be replaced by the top two teams in the Top Challenge One promotion playoff, featuring the top four regional sides.

Canon won their first two games to get top spot, but were then beaten by Kyuden Voltex in the final round. The Voltex needed to win by at least 39 points and won 68-17, thereby denying Kubota Spears an automatic spot in the TL. The teams finishing third and fourth in the promotion playoff get another shot at making the big time via the final round of promotion/relegation playoffs.

Toyota Shokki Shuttles take on Brad Thorn's Fukuoka Sanix Blues, who finished 11th in the Top League, while Kubota (who include Seilala Mapasua in their ranks) are up against the 12th-placed NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, whose fullback is Mils Muliaina.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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