Future of Japanese Rugby Uncertain After Sunwolves Exit
Super Rugby Side Has Been Intrinsic To Brave Blossoms' Growth Over Past Three Years
With the recent shock announcement from SANZAAR that the Sunwolves will no longer be part of Super Rugby after the 2020 season, the future of rugby development in Japan has become much more uncertain.
The Super Rugby side has, since 2016, been bridging the gap between the Top League and the international arena.
Whether or not the national team can continue to be competitive without the Sunwolves is debatable, especially with the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU), regularly being accused of being out of touch with modern rugby.
In the pre-Super Rugby era, Japan’s position in the world rankings (which began in 2003) mostly hovered between #20 and #16.
It wasn’t until halfway through ex-All Black John Kirwan’s tenure as head coach (2007-2011) that the national squad began to climb the rankings, reaching a high of 13 at the end of 2011.
Kirwan was followed by future national hero Eddie Jones, a man who single handedly accomplished a number of feats that invigorated rugby’s popularity in Japan.
Jones’ profound understanding of the Japanese style of play, coupled with the exceptional (and unorthodox) training regime he imposed on the players, saw his team make history by breaking into the top ten in world rugby.
Jones had only the Top League to draw players from, yet he was able to turn the national squad into a world-class side.
During his reign, the Brave Blossoms recorded stunning victories over rugby powerhouses Wales and Italy, achieved a tier two record 10 wins on the trot and in 2014, after disposing of Romania, reached its highest ever ranking, briefly hitting no. 9 before settling at 10 in the table.
Jones’ legacy was complete after he orchestrated arguably the biggest upset in sporting history, downing South Africa 34-32 at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Soon afterwards, riding on the success of that World Cup, the JRFU secured a five-year Super Rugby deal. One which officials hoped would continue the development of the national side.
After the Sunwolves’ first season, Jamie Joseph was appointed head coach of the Brave Blossoms and was in charge for four matches that year. A 20-54 home loss to Argentina, followed by a November European tour where Joseph’s side beat Georgia before losing to Wales, and Fiji.
Japan dropped two places to #12 in the rankings as a result. The following year saw the Brave Blossoms move up to 11 before a June test window where they would face Romania and Ireland (twice) at home.
Romania was comfortably swept aside 33-21 but the Irish team showed just how great the divide is between one of the top sides in the world (even without its Lions players) and Japan.
Joseph afterwards said, “From the perspective as head coach in our Irish series in June 2017, it was very clear that our players just weren’t ready to play test match rugby against tier one teams. But it was just a couple of things in terms of our fitness and ability to play that level of rugby week-in week-out; we just weren’t fit or strong enough, and the second part of that learning was as coaches, as new coaches, we weren't spending enough time with the players.”
The new head coach recognized that first of all he needed the players to commit to increasing their standard of fitness but also that he and the coaching staff had to focus more on building relationships.
It took a few more defeats before the players started to settle and play competitive rugby. “I always find it tough to get the players out of Top League and then to be able to form in a week’s time against an international side,” said Joseph. “So that was what it was like in November, it was a week after we assembled, we were clearly beaten by the World XV, then we were clearly beaten by the Wallabies but as that tour went on, we were getting better and better so we had a physical one against Tonga and we should’ve beaten France. We had a draw against France in Paris which really shows us signs that when you spend more time with the players then the players understand the games and their roles increases along with their fitness and ability to perform at a high intensity and we were a very competitive team.”
In 2018 the national team had home matches against Italy (twice) and Georgia in June, followed by the All Blacks in November. Twickenham Stadium was the Brave Blossoms’ next port of call. They took on England, before ending the season against Russia in Gloucester with a preview of the 2019 Rugby World Cup opening match.
The Brave Blossoms put on a commanding display in the first test against Italy, running out comfortable winners, 34-17. The following week however, Japan lost composure and let the Italians off the hook in a 22-25 loss. Joseph said, “To beat Italy in the first test convincingly, and then to be beaten by the same team a week later was a really disappointing. What it showed us as coaches was that we needed to train the mentality of our players.”
Georgia was no match for Joseph’s men and was blanked 28-0 before the All Blacks' 10-try blitz gave them the facile win despite Japan having scored five. “The All Black game: the ability to score a number of tries against the best team in the world was another positive factor,” said Joseph.
Against England, Japan through an inspired performance by captain Michael Leitch was up 15-10 at half time only to fall away badly as England’s coach Eddie Jones was forced to bring on his big guns to get the (35-15) win. Ending their tour of Europe on a positive note, the Brave Blossoms came from behind to quell a spirited Russian side 32-27. “Our performance at Twickenham, again as a coach, you’re a little disappointed when you’re ahead at half-time, then lose the test match. The way we played the game and the way that we finish the game is really important,” explained Joseph. “This team won’t give in and again with Russia, a very different challenge for the team. The week before we played in front of 82,000 people at Twickenham, the biggest rugby stadium in the world. The following week we played in front of 3000 people in Gloucester and our players really had to dig deep to turn the test match around against the very committed and physical Russians. I am very proud of how the team finished the tour.”
Joseph had successfully provided his players opportunities to compete at an elite level by arranging matches with all of the top-five test playing nations.
As the coach explained, “We’re not going to be able to beat the best teams in the world if we don’t actually play them.”
With Joseph working closely with current Sunwolves’ head coach Tony Brown, the Super Rugby side maintained tight links with the national team, which has helped Japan stay consistent in the world rankings - holding onto 11th place for three years.
Joseph knows from coaching the Sunwolves in 2018 that the team is imperative to Japan’s success at this year’s World Cup and beyond. “The rugby world is moving fast and without the inclusion of Japanese rugby players in Super Rugby competitions, we just won’t be able to keep up,” asserted Joseph.
To go back to relying solely on the Japanese domestic league post 2020 to fill the void left by the Sunwolves’ departure, would be like returning to pen and paper after your five-year old Mac suddenly died. What is required is a new competition that better serves Japanese rugby perhaps involving the Pacific Island nations, or the JRFU could even take a page out of the book of Australia’s Western Force – a team that also found itself cut from Super Rugby.
Force’s billionaire owner, Andrew Forrest launched a project called “Global Rapid Rugby” which has the former Super Rugby side thriving in its own competition, playing against teams from across the Asia-Pacific region.
Regardless of the what happens post 2019, the Sunwolves have built up a vibrant and large fanbase at home – another reason that this unique team absolutely needs to be saved if the JRFU hope to increase the awareness and growth of not only the national team but the sport itself in the years to come.
2019 May 25th