Brave Lupus score late to beat Wild Knights in Japan Rugby League One final

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Fiji-born winger Jone Naikabula scored two tries in a Player of the Match performance for Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo who beat Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights 24-20 Sunday in an extraordinary Japan Rugby League One final.

Replacement center Yuto Mori scored the winning try in the 74th minute of a see-sawing final to give the Brave Lupus their sixth national title in Japan rugby’s professional era and their first since 2010. They have drawn level with the Wild Knights who also have won six titles since the advent of the Japan professional leagues in 2003.

In a dramatic finish, the Wild Knights appeared to have snatched victory with a try by midfielder Tomoki Osada in the last minute. But after long deliberation, the referees disallowed the try because of a forward pass in its build-up between hooker Shota Horie and winger Marika Koroibete.

The moment was particularly poignant because the 38-year-old Horie, veteran of more than 150 matches for the Wild Knights, will retire after this match.

The Wild Knights still had one last chance to win the match. They won a penalty from a scrum, despite being under pressure at scrums throughout the match. They mounted one last attack but Naikabula made a massive tackle to win a turnover and the match was saved.

The winning Brave Lupus team was coached by former All Blacks backrower Todd Blackadder who claimed his first national title. He coached the Christchurch-based Crusaders in Super Rugby between 2009 and 2016 without winning the championship and coached Bath in England but also missed out on a title.

On Sunday, he upstaged his mentor, another former Crusaders coach Robbie Deans, who coached the Wild Knights.

Sunday’s defeat ended the Wild Knights’ unbeaten run of 17 matches this season. The Brave Lupus lost only once, to the Wild Knights, on their way to the final.

They haven’t been among the top teams in the JRLO in recent years. But they have been invigorated this season by the arrival of All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and backrower Shannon Frizell.

“The Wild Knights are an awesome club, really the benchmark in this competition,” Mo’unga said. “The Brave Lupus have been driven this year by people who really care about the organization.

“A lot of hard work goes into putting this rugby team out there and all credit to everyone at this club who wanted this championship so bad. I’m proud to be part of it.”

The Wild Knights dominated the first 15 minutes of the match, winning 72 percent of possession and forcing the Brave Lupus to make 61 tackles. They were held up over the goalline twice and managed only six points from two penalties to flyhalf Rikiya Matsuda.

The Brave Lupus then began to win quick ruck ball and turned the match, scoring the first try through Naikabula on the short side of a scrum.

Naikabula looked like scoring again just before halftime but was hauled back by the collar by Koroibete who was sent to the sin-bin. In his absence, Naikabula scored his second try through Koroibete's vacant wing and the Brave Lupus led 17-6.

The Wild Knights then mounted a comeback, scoring through Australia-born backrower Ben Gunter and scrumhalf Taiki Koyama to lead 20-17 after 69 minutes.

Yuto Mori’s try won back the lead for the Brave Lupus who held on amid the dramatic events of the final minutes.


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