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Marx wins his first club trophy

WRAP: Japan Rugby League One has a new champion after Kubota Spears deposed the defending champion Wild Knights in a tense final at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

The Spears won 17-15 in front of 41 000 excited fans to complete a journey which had started in 2018 when the club made the semifinals of the former Top League.

Led by Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley, Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx and their veteran captain Harumichi Tatekawa, the Spears had qualified second for the playoffs before a hard-fought 24-18 win over Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in the semifinals.

Saitama, who were bidding for a third consecutive title, and a seventh since the old Top League was inaugurated in 2003, had lost just once during the regular season as they topped the table, before producing a stunning turnaround to blow Yokohama Canon Eagles away in the second half of their semi-final last weekend.

The title was the first for Spears coach Frans Ludeke since he won the second of his twin Super Rugby titles with the Pretoria-based Bulls in 2010.

Ludeke’s Bulls had dismantled a Chiefs outfit guided by current All Black coach Ian Foster, 61-17, in the most one-sided final in Super Rugby history, for the first of those titles in 2009.

The South African joined Kubota in 2016.

It was also the first top-tier national title for Marx, who had gone agonisingly close in Super Rugby, losing in the final on three occasions while playing for the Johannesburg-based Lions.

The loss was just the second suffered by the Wild Knights since rugby resumed in Japan after the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, following on from a defeat by Shizuoka Blue Revs earlier in the season that had brought the team’s 47-game undefeated sequence to an end.

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Meanwhile in the third and fourth Eagles down Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath with a 26-20 win.

Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk scored one try, and set up another, as Canon Eagles came from behind to complete a memorable season with a victory over Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in an entertaining playoff for third place on Friday.

De Klerk, who has timed his run nicely heading into the test season, caught the Suntory lineout defence napping to set up the Eagles’ opening try, then picked one up himself after winning the race in a 50-metre chip and chase he started, having found space on the blindside.

The try began the Eagles’ revival after two well-taken tries had seen Sungoliath lead 15-7 at the break.

A try from a lineout by Tongan backrower Sione Halasili, who had also scored in last weekend’s semi-final loss to Saitama, gave Canon the lead, but Suntory struck back with a successful lineout drive of its own which worked hooker Shunta Nakamura over the goal-line.

The 20-19 lead lasted just six minutes before Yokohama landed what proved to be the match-winning score when a clever cross-field kick created the opportunity for wing Chihito Matsui.

His try was converted from wide out by Junpei Ogura, and while South African fullback SP Marais hit the post with a long-range penalty attempt in the 79th minute which would have killed off the game, Suntory were never in position to score again.

The Eagles’ first victory over Sungoliath, at their third attempt for the season, allowed the Yokohama-based side to claim third, up three places from last year’s sixth-place finish.

The loss completed a campaign where Suntory, who had featured in the last two finals, had always been close enough to the top sides, without ever looking like title contenders.

One of the reasons for this was the absence of the powerful Wallaby midfielder Samu Kerevi although Australian coach Eddie Jones, like his South African counterpart Jacques Nienaber in the case of de Klerk, would have been pleased to see his backline star come through the game unscathed.

Making his second appearance since returning from the knee injury he suffered at last year’s Commonwealth Games Sevens tournament, the 29-year-old had a solid 70-minute hit-out before he joins the Wallaby camp ahead of the Rugby Championship which starts on July 9.

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