Sunwolves’ Future Up In The Air
Japanese Side Continues To Improve But Not Fast Enough For Some In SANZAAR
What a month it has been for Japan's Super Rugby side the Sunwolves as they proved to their critics that maybe, just maybe, things are looking up for the men from Tokyo.
After a heavy 10-45 first-round loss to the Sharks, the knives were already out to have the Japanese franchise cut from Super Rugby 2020.
The following week was a massive step-up; playing in front of a 14,000 strong crowd at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya Stadium the Sunwolves surged to life and only a stiff breeze denied kicker Hayden Parker a last minute drop goal to claim victory over a Waratahs’ team laden with Wallabies.
With head coach Tony Brown having been called away to assist with the World Cup training squad, acting Sunwolves coach Scott Hansen afterwards said, “Against the Sharks, we were just growing our game and this week we got the opportunity to put in more reps and we learnt a lot from the Sharks and the boys all worked collectively to put in a good shift.”
What really raised eyebrows was the Sunwolves’ defense as time and again the forward pack knocked the stuffing out of the Waratahs attack close to the rucks.
“I thought at times across the board we had some really good defensive efforts. Our spacing, our alignments allowed us to put some pressure on the Waratahs,“ Hansen acknowledged. “It’s really important to understand it wasn’t just one man, that was eight guys working for each other and that’s good growth in that game and long may it continue.”
Just one week later the Sunwolves recorded an historic first ever away-win, downing the two-time champion Chiefs 30-15 in Hamilton.
These results have given fans a renewed hope in the Sunwolves really making successful impact in the 2019 season.
Although the team slipped up in round four against the Blues in New Zealand, the signs are good. Three years of persistence, hard work and positive team culture are finally starting to pay dividends for the Japanese side.
The timing couldn’t be better as SANZAAR (the governing body which represents South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina) convenes this month and is expected to discuss change to the current Super Rugby format.
That makes every Sunwolves’ victory this season crucial not only for the team’s Super Rugby survival, but also for the ability of the players involved to hone their skills and build experience – something that is key for the national side as Japan looks to build on its success from the 2015 World Cup.
Jamie Joseph, Japan head coach has stressed the importance of a rewarding Sunwolves’ season and explained how it could translate to a competitive Brave Blossoms’ performance on the international stage. “Simply, the Japanese cannot prepare properly for the World Cup without having the Sunwolves rugby team. World rugby is moving very fast. We’ve seen recently the All Blacks losing to Ireland, losing to South Africa, and from 2015 when Japan beat South Africa, the rugby world was moving fast and without the inclusion of Japanese rugby players in Super Rugby competitions, we just won’t be able to keep up.”
At issue is the fact that the stats for the Sunwolves’ first three years of Super Rugby are hardly a convincing argument for the team’s continued existence.
Making their debut in 2016 under ex-Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett, the Sunwolves could only muster one win and a draw, rooting the Japanese side to the bottom of the table.
2017 saw new head coach, Filo Tiatia produce two wins in an otherwise dismal season.
Japan’s national coach Jamie Joseph took over the coaching reins in 2018 and conjured up the Sunwolves’ best performance, notching home victories over the Queensland Reds, South African Stormers and Bulls but was it a case of too little, too late?
Although the Sunwolves made small improvements each season, the Japanese side continues to under-perform and has failed to sway many critics.
New coaches and players in and out of the team each year obviously make it difficult to build a solid platform, but more importantly between 2016-2018, players involved in both the Japanese domestic competition-the Top League-and Super Rugby, were only allowed a paltry 22 days to rest, recover and start training for the toughest rugby contest in the world.
In comparison, other franchises have roughly two and a half months of training from December on, including two hit-outs against rival Super Rugby teams before the opening round.
Looking back on the last three seasons, the Sunwolves results don’t seem so depressing when you realize the Tokyo team consistently had only three weeks together - with a new coach - to get ready for a grueling four-month test of body-crunching action.
With such a huge discrepancy in preparation time and a lack of quality warm-up matches allocated, the Sunwolves were doomed from the start and often fell victim to a mounting injury list as the competition progressed.
In just the opening round of the 2018 season against Australian side the Brumbies, the Sunwolves lost six first-choice players to injuries, with several more key figures added to the injury list during their second-round match against the Rebels.
At the time Joseph said, ”So injuries really affect any team and I think I said last week we’re going to get more injuries as the season goes on but in terms of depth we’re really struggling at the moment. You lose key people each week and it’s really hard to come back from.”
There is little doubt the injuries sustained in the first half of the 2018 competition were a direct result of insufficient time to properly condition the players.
It’s clear as day that in order for the Sunwolves to be competitive and finish in the top half of the table, players need to be fully rested, conditioned, and fit to take on some of the best club teams in the world.
Unfortunately, there seem to be no plans in the foreseeable future to reduce the number of teams in Top League – something that could shorten the season and leave plenty of time to accommodate a proper pre-season for the Sunwolves.
The Japanese and SANZAAR are currently at a crossroads and this month the fate of the Sunwolves’ playing future may be decided.
For Japan to gain credibility at a national level including the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Super Rugby is vital.
The focus has to be on Super Rugby and the growth of the national squad, and the Top League should be used as a training ground to develop promising players for the next generation of Sunwolves.
Joseph has said, “We all know Super Rugby is a very tough competition, the team is expected to travel all over the world and be at their very best which at times is very difficult. But it’s that intensity of week-in week-out rugby that our players are getting, and being involved in Super Rugby, which is valuable prep for the World Cup. So this is our fourth season going forward. We’ve learned a lot in the last few years about the Super Rugby competition and about how to perform in the competition. We’ve got the abilities to keep on improving as a Super Rugby team. I’m really excited about the way forward.”
Exactly what that right way forward is, in a country that holds onto tradition as much as it opposes change, is proving to be a challenging puzzle with no easy solution in sight.
The pressure is on and the future of Super Rugby in this country is uncertain.
Let’s hope that SANZAAR recognizes that the Sunwolves are crucial to the development of the sport in Asia.
If they don’t, Japan will have missed out on a golden opportunity to put rugby here firmly on the map.