Marika Koroibete led Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights to the Japanese club rugby union title on Sunday as the ambitious rebranded league ended a stop-start debut season marred by coronavirus outbreaks.
The Wallabies player scored a first-half try as Saitama edged All Black Damian McKenzie’s Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath 18-12 in the Japan Rugby League One final on a sweltering afternoon at Tokyo’s National Stadium.
The match gave league chiefs the big occasion they were looking for after ditching the previous Top League and launching the new competition in a blaze of publicity at the start of the year.
League bosses said they wanted to create “the best league in the world,” with 2019 world player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit and Australians Samu Kerevi and Quade Cooper among the foreign talent on show.
The new league endured a difficult first season, with virus outbreaks forcing no fewer than 18 first-division matches to be canceled, including the showpiece season opener.
Saitama and Suntory ensured the season would end on a high note after a tight encounter in the final, with Koroibete outshining his Sungoliath opponents McKenzie and Kerevi.
“The boys dug in for everyone and it was good to get a win,” said Koroibete, whose team forfeited their first two games of the season after a virus outbreak left them without enough players to compete.
“Hopefully it won’t be like this next year.”
Saitama had a try chalked off in the 11th minute, but Koroibete streaked through to touch down just before the half-hour mark.
The star winger had another one disallowed just minutes later, but the Wild Knights stayed in control and fly-half Takuya Yamasawa denied McKenzie with a crucial try-saving tackle on the stroke of half-time.
McKenzie, who replaced fellow All Black Beauden Barrett at Suntory at the start of the season, reduced the deficit with two penalties as the second half got under way.
Saitama restored its advantage when Dylan Riley scored another try in the 73rd minute, and held on to win the title for the second year running after beating Suntory in the Top League’s last-ever final last season.
Saitama did not lose any games on the pitch this season but head coach Robbie Deans said it was “lucky” that they qualified for the championship playoffs after forfeiting points because of the virus.
“We couldn’t presume that we would be rewarded, ultimately,” Deans said.
“We could have lost no games and not made it.”
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