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Rugby: Suntory's Wheeler wraps up special year with more silverware

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Suntory Sungoliath lock Joe Wheeler wrapped up a momentous year Saturday as he helped his side to a second straight Japan Rugby Top League title.

    The 30-year-old New Zealander, who got married in November, received some of the silverware as Suntory also claimed an eighth All-Japan Championship to go with the league title. He told Kyodo News he had just signed a three-year contract that will see him stay in Japan until 2021.

    "It's been a great year on and off the field, and to cap it off with another title, you can't ask for any better," he said following his team's 12-8 win over Panasonic Wild Knights at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.

    Wheeler put in a trademark hard-working 70-minute shift in the engine room before being replaced by fellow Kiwi Jordan Smiler, in a game dominated by Japan and Australia internationals.

    "I'm not sure why there are so many Aussies -- maybe the Kiwis aren't getting a crack," he said with a smile, in reference to the combined 283 Wallabies caps and 465 Brave Blossoms caps on display.

    With current Australian international Sean McMahon leading from the front and Wallabies legend Matt Giteau pulling the strings behind Wheeler and the rest of the pack, Suntory put an end to Panasonic's hopes of going through the season unbeaten.

    "Our loss to Panasonic before the November break handed us some good learnings," said Wheeler. "We put those into practice and reaped the rewards at the right end of the season."

    Wheeler's captain Yutaka Nagare said the game was a great advertisement for Japanese rugby and the genial New Zealander agreed.

    "That was as good a quality as Mitre 10, if not better," he said, referring to New Zealand's domestic competition. "The physicality was right up there."

    While Wheeler will head south during the Northern Hemisphere offseason, he will not be playing Super Rugby for his beloved Highlanders. However, he will work for the Dunedin-based team in their marketing department, which should see him adding to his reputation as a Youtube star.

    And then it is back to Japan to help Suntory, for whom he has lost just one first-class game in two years, in their bid to add even more trophies and silverware to their impressive collection.

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