In a repeat of last year’s Top League final, former Gunnedah Red Devil, Ben Gunter shone in the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights 34-17 comeback win over rivals Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath at the Kumagaya Rugby Stadium in Japan.

The Wild Knights bounced back from a 17-3 deficit early in the first half as Gunter added his name to the scoresheet, crashing over the line from an exquisite lineout move to reduce the lead to 17-10.

He spoke to the Gunnedah Times about the Wild Knights’ shift in momentum, following a slow start to the game.

“We had that set play in our back pocket and when we were coming up to the line-out we thought we could maul this but we gave the play a go to try and ignite some momentum,” Gunter said.

“All the momentum was on Suntory’s side at that point of the game so I think it was a really good call from our leaders.

“Full credit to my prop Inagaki at the back of the line-out, he executed his job really well which was faking a maul and driving forward to stop the players from coming around and it created a nice gap for me to run through.

“It was great to get the ball rolling for the guys but coming back to that huddle after the try and seeing everyone switch on and say ‘now we play’ that was probably a better feeling than scoring a try.”

From there, the Wild Knights piled on the pressure as they took a three point lead into the half-time break as the score read 20-17, following a try from hooker Atsushi Sakate, finishing from a rolling maul.

The second half was much of the same with the Wild Knights continuing their control over the opposition, scoring 14 unanswered points to move to fourth on the newly introduced Japan Rugby League One ladder.

It was Suntory’s first defeat of the season, a result costing the side first place with Kubota Spears overtaking the Tokyo-based side.

Gunter spoke about the strength of the squad which has seen the side overcome a number of challenging hurdles on and off the field early in the season.

“The game showed the tolerance of Panasonic,” he said.

“Obviously coming into the season as champions we have a target on our back and after a slow start with COVID which knocked us back two games, it has shown that no matter where we are on the board we will come at you no matter what.”

While the Wild Knights have two losses on their record, the side is still yet to taste defeat on the pitch. Like his teammates, Gunter caught COVID at the start of the Japan One League season and the side had to forefeit its first two games against the Spears and Green Rockets.

During this time, Gunter was so sick he was forced into the hospital for 10 days while battling a leg injury. Attached to an oxygen machine, all the Australian-born Japanese forward could think about was his return to the rugby field.

“It was tough, I had a little calf tear in the first training session where we caught COVID,” Gunter said.

“I ended up in the hospital and lost six kilos during my time there.

“It was a massive shock to the system but now I’m a lot stronger for it. We have to do regular COVID tests but I did a blood test last week and my antibodies are at like 80,000 so I’ve got the highest immune system out of all the boys so I guess it’s worked out for the best.”

Following the stint in the hospital, Gunter worked closely with Wild Knight’s head coach Robbie Deans to work himself back into the starting outfit.

“Robbie was very thorough with making sure I got myself right and was able to build back into playing,” Gunter said.

“I was very worried about my fitness but I just took it slow, I spent a week doing rehab to make sure my calf was good and my weight came back pretty fast which was good to see.

“The way Robbie managed me was great, I think I only played 60 minutes the first game back and he reassured me saying my body will come back stronger, which it did.”

In his return to the field, Gunter admitted it was the worst feeling he ever had after a game.

“I wouldn’t recommend going through what I had to go through because it was hell in hospital – that first three or four days back at training was a mental grind.”

Despite the various challenges, Gunter and the Wild Knights are continuing to return to their premiership winning form from last year and although they are focused on taking each game week-by-week, adding another premiership ring would be a nice touch come the end of the season.

“We don’t like to look too far ahead but our goal is to make the top four and book a spot in the quarter finals or semis and make our way through to the final.”

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