Richie Mo’unga downs Robbie Deans’ Knights in controversial Japan Rugby League One final

Lawrence Nolan
Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo players celebrate winning the Japan Rugby League One title.

Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo players celebrate winning the Japan Rugby League One title.

The Toshiba Brave Lupus, pivoted by All Black fly-half Richie Mo’unga, became the first team to defeat Robbie Deans’ Saitama Wild Knights this season and thus became champions of Japan in a thrilling Final in front of 57,000 in Tokyo on Sunday.

The contest provided a dramatic finish as the Wild Knights had what would have been the match-winning score disallowed, with the 79th minute ‘try’ by replacement winger Tomoki Osada ruled out by the TMO following a forward pass from the retiring legend Shota Horie during the 15-phase build up.

Naikabula and Mo’unga star

While the ball definitely floated forward in the play, it was difficult to tell for certain on replay whether his hands had been positioned in a forward position as he off-loaded.

The decision was perhaps less contentious than an earlier call that went against the Wild Knights after Brave Lupus winger Jone Naikabula – the Player of the Match – appeared to ground the ball short of the goal-line while scoring the game’s opening try. The awarding of the score was not referred, leaving the Wild Knights aggrieved, while giving Brave Lupus the lead for the first time.

Todd Blackadder’s men had survived a furious opening assault by their rivals, with heroic defence twice holding up Wild Knights players over the goal-line, while their pressure at the breakdown and swarming defence forced a litany of mistakes as their opponents pushed passes and lost control of possession in contact on several occasions.

When Brave Lupus fly-half Richie Mo’unga added a penalty goal to their tally, a 10-6 half-time advantage looked a handy one, but it became even more valuable a minute before the break after Wild Knights winger Marika Koroibete was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle on his fellow Fijian, Naikabula.

The Brave Blossoms’ winger had got away again down the touchline and was scragged around the neck by his Wallaby counterpart as he raced back to run the Brave Lupus man down. Naikabula made the Wild Knights pay for Koroibete’s absence, catching them cold down the short side of an attacking line-out drive for his 12th try of the season.

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Mo’unga, who added the Japan Rugby League One to his seven titles in Super Rugby, had become an increasingly influential force in the game – it was a 50:22 from him that had laif the platform for Naikabula’s try – but a missed penalty goal in the 60th minute began a momentum shift that totally turned the game around, with the Wild Knights hitting their opponents with two tries in five minutes.

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Thailand-born backrower Ben Gunter forced his way over from a ruck near the goal-line after Brave Lupus made a mess of clearing a kick through, then winger Taiki Koyama scored after supporting Koroibete, who had received a favourable bounce from a kick in behind the line by full-back Takuya Yamasawa.

From 17-6 down, the Wild Knights suddenly led 20-17, but they were to be denied the glory when the irrepressible Naikabula popped up again, laying on a try for replacement Yuto Mori, following another sideline burst that got outside of the back-peddling defensive line.

Six minutes remained when Mo’unga converted Mori’s try, and it was probably the longest six minutes of the players and coaching staff of Brave Lupus’s lives as the Wild Knights responded furiously, eventually busting the defence for Osada to finish the most important ‘non’ try of the season.

With Rikiya Matsuda preparing to line up the conversion, and his teammates celebrating, the TMO intervened, and that was that.

Third-place play-off and promotion-relegation

The third-place play-off saw Suntory Sungoliath beat the Yokohama Canon Eagles 40-33 after two late tries from flanker Tamati Ioane and winger Shota Emi.

Eagles winger Matsui Chihito snaffled a hat-trick in only his fifth game of an injury-hit season, but it wasn’t enough.

Urayasu D-Rocks beat Quade Cooper’s Hanazono Kintetsu Liners 35-30 and thus take their place in next season’s top division, while Mie Honda Heat and Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo saw off their second-tier challengers, Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi and NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu.

The Black Rams secured an emphatic 55-0 win, while Mie Honda Heat were made to sweat a little and lost 15-24 on the day, just having enough in the bank from the first leg to prevail on aggregate.

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