Brave Lupus upset Wild Knights in thrilling League One final

May 27, 2024

Jone Naikabula scored a brace of tries to spearhead Brave Lupus Tokyo to a dramatic 24-20 upset over Saitama Wild Knights in the Japan Rugby League One championship final on Sunday.

The Robbie Deans-coached Wild Knights were denied a match-winning try and an undefeated season after the television match official ruled retiring veteran Shota Horie threw a forward pass in the lead-up to Tomoki Osada dotting down in the 79th minute.

The result was a case of deja vu for Saitama, who were upset by Kubota Spears in last year's championship decider after coming in as favorites on the back of a dominant regular season.

All Black stars Richie Mo'unga and Shannon Frizell provided vital momentum for Brave Lupus, but it was Japan winger Naikabula who earned man-of-match honors with tries in the 27th and 45th minutes in front of 56,486 at Tokyo's National Stadium.

Center Yuto Mori put head coach Todd Blackadder's men ahead for good with his try in the 74th minute, shortly after Wild Knights had taken the lead during a see-sawing second half.

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"I couldn't be more proud of our team. I think that game probably sums up our spirit and our resilience, the way we stuck in there," Blackadder said.

The 52-year-old ex-All Black captain tasted victory over Deans, his former mentor in New Zealand club rugby, for the first time since he took the reins at Brave Lupus in 2019.

Desperate defending from Brave Lupus ensured Saitama only had two Rikiya Matsuda penalties to show for a dominant stretch early in the first half.

The Wild Knights crossed the try line on their first drive up the field, but scrumhalf Taiki Koyama was ruled to have knocked on while grounding the ball. Brave Lupus captain Michael Leitch later made a try-saving tackle to stop Takuya Yamasawa at the line.