Australian-born center Dylan Riley scored a decisive try in the 73rd minute Sunday as the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights beat Suntory Sungoliath 18-12 in the inaugural final of Japan Rugby League One at Tokyo's National Stadium.
The 25-year-old Japan international, who was born on Australia's Gold Coast, crossed the line near the end of a tense final to give the Wild Knights breathing space; they held on to defend their status as the leading club in the Japan domestic league.
Riley is fast becoming Suntory’s nemesis. His five points on Sunday added to the intercept try he scored in last year’s Top League final, which set the Wild Knights on their way to a 31-26 victory over Suntory.
A former Australia Under-20s representative, Riley’s acquisition and development has represented a shrewd bit of recruitment by Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans, who coached Australia's national team between 2008 and 2013.
Renowned for his ability to spot and develop raw talent, Deans brought Riley, lock Jack Cornelsen and loose forward Ben Gunter to the club, out of relative anonymity within the Australian development system, turning them into two-time Japan club title-winners.
All three players made their test debuts for Japan last year.
Sunday's title was Deans’ fifth with the Wild Knights, matching his five Super Rugby crowns with the Christchurch, New Zealand-based Crusaders. He also won Tri-Nations titles and the Bledisloe Cup while coaching coordinator for the All Blacks, and later Australia’s first Tri-Nations title for a decade as head coach of the Wallabies,
Alongside Riley, Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete, whom Deans brought to the club this year, was Saitama’s star.
Koroibete’s frequent barging runs were topped only by his effortless run in for the game’s opening try, after being set up by snappy play from Riley and Wild Knights’ fullback Ryuji Noguchi.
Suntory was kept in the game by the accurate boot of former All Blacks player Damien McKenzie, whose fourth penalty goal in the 66th minute drew his side to within a point of the Wild Knights.
While his opposite goal-kicker, Takuya Yamasawa, missed three of his six attempts on goal, the Saitama flyhalf was involved in the match’s key moment when he knocked the ball from McKenzie’s grasp as the Suntory fullback was diving for the tryline just before halftime.
The ball spilled free, and with it went Suntory’s title hopes as they were unable to break down the well organized Wild Knights defense through the second half of a game played in an energy-sapping 31 degrees Celsius.
This weekend saw the end of the promotion/relegation series, with former Australia international Israel Folau’s NTT Communications Shining Arcs finishing a disastrous season with relegation while ex-Wallabies coach Michael Cheika’s NEC Green Rockets retained their top-tier status after tying their series with Honda Heat.
The Mitsubishi Dynaboars replace the Shining Arcs in the top division next year.
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