Experience, Emotion Help Sunwolves To First Win Of 2017
The Sunwolves won their first match of the season on Saturday, in a tight encounter against the Bulls at Chichibunomiya Stadium. The return of senior Japanese players, including Fumiaki Tanaka, Kotaro Matsushima, Yu Tamura, Shunsuke Nunomaki and Keita Inagaki, added composure to the team and galvanised the home fans.
Hayden Cripps got things rolling with a clever chip for captain Timothy Lafaele to chase. The ball was then swept out to the left wing, with debutant Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco racing to the corner to score the first try of the match.
The home team played well in the wet conditions, knowing when to use the high ball and when to spread it out wide. Captain Timothy Lafaele was also keen to stress the improved error count this time round. “We put them under pressure and everyone performed their roles well. There were less mistakes in this game and our kick and chase worked well,” he said.
With all the pressure early on, the Sunwolves should have been further ahead if Hayden Cripps hadn’t missed a conversion and penalty during the opening ten minutes. With a slender lead of just eight points, the Sunwolves were always at risk during the South African’s strong set pieces. In the 12th minute, Burger Odendaal picked up the ball from a simple lineout and ghosted past Shuhei Matsuhashi and Takaaki Nakazuru to score the Bulls’ first try of the afternoon.
Japanese fly half, Yu Tamura, was brought on at the beginning of the second half and continued where Hayden Cripps left off, with clever kicking and good game management. “Yu Tamura made a massive contribution, getting us into the right parts of the field and directed things really well. Cripps did the same thing in the first half and and so I was really happy with both my number tens,” said Head Coach Filo Tiatia.
Bulls captain Adriaan Strauss was full of compliments for the way the home side executed their game plan. “They were tactically very good - they kept hold of the ball and kicked well.” As for his own team’s performance, “There were soft moments for us where we gave them a lot of turnover ball, especially at the start of the match. Our set piece and mauls worked well but to be honest with you, the Sunwolves outplayed us for most for the game.”
As the game entered the final quarter, it looked as if the Bulls would just edge it with Travis Ismaiel crossing the line. The Sunwolves responded well though, using their experienced bench, with Keita Inagaki, Shunsuke Nunomaki and Yuki Yatomi joining the fray.
A combination of playing in front of a vociferous home crowd in Tokyo, the return of many experienced players, and a reduction in the error count saw the home team enter the final 10 minutes on the front foot. “The bench made the difference today by bringing a lot of energy to the team,” said Lafaele.
Yuki Yatomi, on for Fumi Tanaka at scrum half, picked up the tempo and exploited the tiring Bulls’ defence, who were reduced to 14 men when Jan Serfontein was sent to the sin bin. Yatomi and Tamura combined well to release Nakazuru in space out wide, and the Suntory man sprinted to the try line.
Yu Tamura then scored a penalty which put the Sunwolves into a 21 - 20 lead with just 5 minutes remaining. The tension within the stadium grew, and reached fever pitch when Liaki Moli gifted the Bulls a kickable penalty straight after the restart.
The usually well-behaved home crowd then tried to put off the Bulls kicker by howling, whistling and booing. It had the desired effect with Francois Brummer missing his kick and the home team holding on during the final minutes. At the death, Yuki Yatomi booted the ball into touch to send the crowd into rapturous applause.
Only 5 meters from the try-line, however, Tiatia wanted the Sunwolves to finish with a flurry rather than play it safe. “With the last turnover in the corner, my coaches wanted him to kick it out but I wanted them to play and go for the try. Thankfully, the decision Yatomi made was the right one, he kicked the ball out and we won the game. I was probably being overzealous,” he said.
The team won’t have much time to enjoy the victory though, as they now face a tough tour in New Zealand and Argentina. Bulls Head Coach, Nollis Marais, was impressed with the Sunwolves and wished the team luck over the coming weeks. “Congratulations to the Sunwolves. They were much improved since last year and they keep getting better every week. They were unlucky last time against the Stormers and today we paid for it. I wish them good luck and safe travels in New Zealand, where they’ll face a different challenge, he said.”
- Lee Watkins: April 9th 2017
Shorthanded Sunwolves Confident Ahead Of Running With The Bulls
Missing Several Key Players Japanese Side Seek First Win Of The Season
The Sunwolves return home this weekend with a chance to make amends for their disappointing defeat to the Bulls in Round four. Both teams are in need of a win to kickstart their seasons.
“The squad are refreshed and ready to go. We just need to keep improving and put teams under pressure,” said Head Coach Filo Tiatia.
The Sunwolves will have to do it without their captain, Ed Quirk, who is sidelined with injury. Joining him on the sidelines are two of their star performers so far this season, Jamie-Jerry Tualagi and Shota Emi, while Willem Britz also returns to South Africa for personal reasons.
Despite the injuries and absence of key men, Tiatia remained upbeat, focusing on the players making their debuts and the development of the squad.
“23 players have made their Sunwolves’ debuts this season and so that is fantastic. We’re trying to create something special. They’re young guys and I’ve made it no secret that they’re here to learn and mature really quickly.” he said.
Derek Carpenter starts again, after scoring two tries against the Stormers in the last round. Fellow center Timothy Lafaele, will captain the team on Saturday
“Timothy Lafaele has grown into his leadership role while on tour. He communicates really well, speaking both English and Japanese, and is a well respected member of the team,” said Tiatia.
Willie Britz’s presence around the squad and strength in the lineout will be missed this weekend, with that responsibility falling on the shoulders of Liaki Moli. The experienced lock wasn’t feeling the pressure though.
“We’re both our own players and we lead in our own ways,” said Liaki Moli. “They’re going to come hard at us, especially with their size. That doesn’t really matter to us, as we’ll look to run them off their feet and use the wind to our advantage.”
Despite the injuries and withdrawals, the return of Fumiaki Tanaka, Kotaro Matsushima and Yu Tamura will certainly help the cause. Last time the Sunwolves played in Tokyo, they suffered a heavy defeat against the Hurricanes. On that day, Ed Quirk said that he hoped to repay the crowd next time around. With the return of key players, perhaps the stage is set for that elusive first victory.
- Lee Watkins: April 7th 2017
Sunwolves / Bulls Captain's Run
Photos: John Gunning - April 7th 2017: Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium
Sunwolves Fade As Stormers Pull Away
The Sunwolves went down 44 - 31 at the Singapore National Stadium, in a match they shouldn't have lost, especially by such a large scoreline.
After a promising first half performance, in which at one point the Sunwolves held a fourteen point advantage over the Stormers, things began to unravel as unforced errors and exhaustion took their toll.
The home team started brightly with Shota Emi and Jumpei Ogura breaking free but falling just short of the try line within the first few minutes. The Sunwolves didn't rue those chances for long though, with Heiichiro Ito charging down a loose ball and Willie Britz setting Derek Carpenter free for his first try of the season.
Carpenter was a continual threat on the break and set up the second try for Shota Emi.
Both teams were playing positive, expansive rugby in an entertaining first half, which ended with the Sunwolves ahead 24 - 20.
At the beginning of the second half, Carpenter combined well with Kenki Fukuoka, and the inside centre left the Stormers' defence for dead with a blistering run to the try line.
Surprisingly Ryohei Yamanaka came on for Carpenter early in the second half, in a move that didn't appear to impress the experienced center who was having his best match of the season and looking for a hat trick of tries.
From that moment on, the Sunwolves looked a beaten side, as the forward momentum that Carpenter contributed to the team disappeared and the Stormers began to hammer the Sunwolves' defence with a number of pick-and-gos.
Club captain Ed Quirk also left the pitch injured early in the second half and with two of their most experienced players gone, the game began to slip away from the home side.
Jumpei Ogura had a confident first half performance but in the second half failed to control proceedings when Oliver Kebble was sent to the sin bin. With 10 minutes, left Ogura had a perfect chance to bring the teams level with a simple penalty in front of the sticks but missed the kick and was replaced by Hayden Cripps at fly half soon after.
The South African team weathered the storm when they were reduced to 14 men and in the final few minutes scored two tries that made the scoreline more flattering.
The Sunwolves now have two weeks until they play their next match against the Bulls in Tokyo. Although they have lost all five fixtures so far this season, the team has looked impressive at times and will be disappointed that they couldn't turn a few of those performances into victories.
The last time the Sunwolves played at Chichibunomiya Stadium was on the opening day of the season against the Hurricanes. Ed Quirk was quick to thank the supporters who showed up in full force on that day and said that the team will repay the fans next time around. If they can bring back players such as Fumiaki Tanaka and improve their game management, then there's no reason why the Sunwolves can't get the win on April 8th
Star Man: Derek Carpenter
He had failed to impress up until this match but put in a huge performance against the Stormers. His two tries showed what a threat he is when given the ball and space to run into. He also assisted in Shota Emi's try and helped put the Sunwolves on the front foot throughout the first half. I'm not sure why he was substituted so early in the second half but his absence, along with Ed Quirk, took the momentum away from the Sunwolves.
- Lee Watkins: March 26th 2017
Wasteful Sunwolves Rue Missed Chances
With both teams still searching for their first win of the season there was much at stake in this Friday night encounter. Like last weekend's match against the Cheetahs, the Sunwolves started brightly and showed real promise, but also like last weekend, and like in all of their other matches this season, wasteful play proved their undoing.
Hayden Cripps broke the deadlock early on with a penalty, and the Sunwolves looked threatening as they attacked the Bulls with pace. Jamie-Jerry Tualagi once again caused problems with a couple of early offloads but forays into the Bulls' half often ended with the Japanese side squandering possession.
The Sunwolves' defended well during the opening exchanges but a loose Kesiuke Uchida pass coupled with Timothy Lafaele's poor handling gifted the Bulls an early try. The home team then added to their tally with a superb catch and drive from the lineout that left the Sunwolves' defence in disarray.
Hayden Cripps kept the Sunwolves within touching distance throughout the first half, putting three of four kicks between the posts. Just before half time, the star man from the Cheetah match, Shota Emi, went on a meandering run that unlocked the Bulls defence, unleashing Kenki Fukuoka down the wing. The Panasonic winger, notched up his fourth try of the campaign in blistering style, running half the length of the pitch before crossing the line and sending the Sunwolves into the interval trailing 17-14.
The momentum seemed to be with the Sunwolves in the second half with Renaldo Bothma sent off after a dangerous high tackle on the Sunwolves' captain, Ed Quirk, straight after the restart.
However, the away side couldn't capitalize on their numerical advantage, with unforced errors being a constant thorn in the side of this inexperienced outfit.
Not to be outdone though, the Bulls also had their horror moments, with the impressive Jason Jenkins carelessly dropping the ball as he nonchalantly tried to place it down one-handed for a try. The mistake must have been embarrassing for the young player but his team dominated the second half with 14 men and ran out comfortable winners.
The Sunwolves' mistakes were much more elementary in nature, with misplaced passes, positional errors in defence, and careless offloads.
At one point in the second half, the Japanese commentator couldn't hide his dissatisfaction, shouting "What a waste!" as Jumpei Ogura, on for Hayden Cripps at fly half, broke the line and wasted a great chance with a careless offload. It’s a sentiment that could describe the Sunwolves entire season so far, with superb attacking play being undone by careless mistakes and sloppy defending.
Star Man: Shota Emi
Once again, the full-back had a fantastic game - dealing well with the high ball, running from deep and stretching the Bulls' defence. His speculative run before half-time opened up the pitch for Kenki Fukuoka, who must enjoy playing alongside somebody as reliable and dangerous as the Suntory man.
- Lee Watkins: March 20th 2017
Ignoring Criticism, Sunwolves Put In Strong Performance
Going into a weekend where tribalism, passion and pride would be on full display in the Six Nations, I have to admit that I was slightly underwhelmed ahead of the Super Rugby fixture about to take place in Bloemfontein.
The talk throughout the week was that the competition in its current form was broken, with some of its members not wanted, and many of its fans turning away. To make matters worse, the Sunwolves were also resting a few of their key players and heading to South Africa, a place where they performed poorly last season, with a depleted squad and criticism surrounding their recent performances.
The match in Bloemfontein, however, was a feisty affair, with passion and drama on both sides. The Sunwolves let everyone know that they were not just there to make up the numbers, with the away team scoring a try within 25 seconds, thanks to Shota Emi ghosting past the hapless Cheetahs' defence.
The Sunwolves tried to defend their lead with crunching tackles from both William Topou and Liaki Moli setting the scene early in the match.
The Cheetahs were industrious, however, and managed to find their way through the Sunwolves' defensive line, with the hooker, Torsten van Jaarsveld, running through an opening gifted by Yasuo Yamaji at the ruck.
The decision to rest Shota Horie and make wholesale changes across the front row appeared to backfire as they were penalised in the scrum and sloppy in the line out. Without such errors, the Sunwolves could well have gone into the break ahead, as Hayden Cripps was in fine form with the boot and ball in hand.
Cripps was rewarded for his good play midway through the first half after squeezing past the Cheetahs' defence and planting the ball beneath the posts. Shota Emi, Kenki Fukuoka and William Tupou all made a nuisance of themselves in the Cheetahs' half, but slack defending at the other end meant the Cheetahs finished the first period 20 - 17 ahead.
In the second half, the Panasonic winger, Kenki Fukuoka, showcased his ruthless finishing, with two tries within ten minutes, giving the Sunwolves the lead. Scrumhalf, Kaito Shigeno, and star man from last weekend, JJ Tualagi, both added an injection of speed to the Sunwolves' play.
However, the Japanese side were unable to hold on for their first ever Super Rugby away victory, as Takuma Asahara was sent to the sin bin, leaving the Sunwolves' already shaky defence to suffer the consequences.
Much has been made of the Sunwolves being out of their depth and undeserving of a place in Super Rugby, but this match went a long way towards proving that there is plenty of life in the franchise and that if issues surrounding their home matches, player welfare, and travel itinerary could be resolved, then the team could become a major player in the coming years.
Star Man: Shota Emi
Before the match, I mentioned that the fullback, Shota Emi, would have to perform well if he was to keep his place ahead of Jamie-Jerry Tualagi. To his credit, Emi, played incredibly well, scoring an early try and clocking up the metres. The Suntory man opted to run from deep much of the time he was on the pitch and will give Filo Tiatia a welcome selection headache in the coming matches.
- Lee Watkins: March 6th 2017
Missed Chances Cost Sunwolves
With the sound of a wolf howling around Singapore’s National Stadium at the start of proceedings, there was genuine optimism that if the Sunwolves could just cut out the errors, then this match was there for the taking.
In the first half, the Sunwolves showed plenty of promise, controlling possession and ranging deep into the Kings' half, but much like last week, and last season, the pressure they put on the opposition did not equate to points on the board. The Sunwolves found themselves in try scoring territory a number of times but squandered their chances with misplaced passes and careless knock-ons. Derek Carpenter, in particular, struggled to hold on to the ball at key moments which could have changed the complexion of the match.
On a positive note, Timothy Lafaele looked much more threatening this weekend, breaking the line a number of times and side-stepping the Kings' full-back to score a try. Fumiaki Tanaka also added composure to the Sunwolves' attacking play, and helped set up the first try. The forward pack bossed the line out and scrum, with Liaki Moli, in particular, putting in another solid performance, racking up double digits on the tackle front.
However, the Sunwolves were unable to keep pace with the Kings, with Hayden Cripps having a tough debut and missing a few kicks. While the Sunwolves lacked a killer touch, the Kings gave a a lesson in clinical finishing, scoring two tries against the run of play to go in at half time 17 - 7 ahead.
Any hopes of the Sunwolves cutting out the errors after the restart didn’t last long and the Kings began to turn the screw on the home side. Towards the end of the match, Kenki Fukuoka and Takaaki Nakazuru both scored their first tries of the campaign, but it was already too late for the Sunwolves to turn things around.
Defeat against the Kings hits harder than the thumping last weekend against the Hurricanes. Going down to the champions was to be expected, but losing to the Kings, when there was so much promise, is more difficult to accept. Ed Quirk was disappointed by the defeat, citing the poor decision making and errors that littered the performance.
Things won't be getting any easier for the Sunwolves with the next two matches in South Africa against the Cheetahs and Bulls, before they return to Singapore to play the Stormers on March 25th. There are promising signs for the team but those don’t count for much if they keep squandering possession and don't fix a porous defence.
The biggest positive in the match was Jamie-Jerry Tualagi's debut after replacing Shota Emi early in the second half. The Munakata Sanix Blues' man caused all kinds of problems to the Kings' defence with his speed and power. The young winger/ fullback made plenty of metres for the Sunwolves and his offloads added another dimension to the attack, leading to a Nakazuru try right at the end. A very impressive display despite only being on the pitch for 29 minutes.
- Lee Watkins: March 6th 2017
Hurricanes Dominate Sunwolves in Season Opener
When a rugby team gets thumped by a massive score on the first game of the season, it can be difficult to find the positives, but in the case of the February 26th Sunwolves - Hurricanes match, there were a few rays of light.
After all, the Sunwolves won't be playing the reigning champions (Hurricanes) every week, won't have quite so many injuries, and will become more experienced as the season develops.
Parts of the match offered a glimpse into the Sunwolves' attacking threat, with Kenki Fukuoka setting up the first try for Riaan Viljoen, Hikaru Tamura and Timothy Lafaele producing some dangerous moments with the boot, Takaaki Nakazuru weaving his way through the Hurricanes' defensive line, and plenty of possession in the opposition's half.
Unfortunately, much like last season, a careless throw here and a lapse in concentration there, led to waves of counter attacks which left the Sunwolves' defence woefully exposed. Julian Savea's try in the 27th minute represented all that was brutal and efficient in the Hurricanes' attack and all that was wrong with the Sunwolves' defence; with the No.11, running on to a cross field kick and steaming past three Sunwolves' defenders.
It was a long afternoon for the Sunwolves with 83 points being put on them by the 60th minute. A masterclass from the Hurricanes, mixed with some very poor defending, meant that the game was done and dusted by the last quarter. However, during the final 20 minutes, the home side did manage to score two consolation tries, with Shokei Kin crossing the line in the 70th minute and then Willie Britz bulldozing his way through a determined Hurricanes' defence in the 78th minute.
Things weren't pretty in Chichibunomiya but at least the Sunwolves managed to chalk up three tries against the champions, looked very solid in the scrum, and some of their young guns, especially Hikaru Tamura, performed well under pressure.
Expect a much closer match against the Southern Kings next weekend in Singapore.
Star Man: Willie Britz put in a strong performance in the No.8 shirt. He drove the Sunwolves forward, was dogged in defence and scrum, and capped off the performance with a well deserved try.
- Lee Watkins: Feb 27th 2017
Sunwolves / Hurricanes Captain's Run
Photos: John Gunning February 24th 2017: Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground
Sunwolves 2017 Season Preview
The Sunwolves kick off their second season of Super Rugby on Saturday with a home game against the defending champions from New Zealand, the Hurricanes.
Japan's Super Rugby side approach the new semester with a new head coach, a much bigger squad and a belief they can do better than their debut season in the competition when they finished with one win, one draw and 13 defeats.
But they also face some old and new problems.
The Sunwolves' travel itinerary will see them clock up up close on 110,000 kilometers in air miles and the complicated conference system means this year they face the teams from New Zealand rather than Australia.
But head coach Filo Tiatia, who has taken over from Mark Hammett, remains upbeat that his side can do well in what he describes as "rugby's toughest competition."
"If you want to improve you need to learn from your mistakes and learn from your mentors," the former All Black said. "We are only in our second year of Super Rugby. All the other teams are more experienced and we are still learning. But the players are really keen."
Of last year's team, Tusi Pisi, Akihito Yamada and Andrew Duratalo are the biggest losses.
Pisi has moved to England to play for Bristol, Yamada has opted not to play Super Rugby for the time being with his wife having just given birth to twins, while the exclusion of Duratalo – who plays 15s and 7s for the U.S. Eagles – is likely based on the desire to have only Japan eligible players representing the Sunwolves.
Of the current squad, only Ed Quirk - who co-captains the side with Harumichi Tatekawa – is unable to play for Japan at some stage in the next three years.
The Queenslander played sevens for Australia shortly after leaving school, but he is hopeful a loophole can be found to allow him to represent the country he has come to love.
Tiatia has had just three weeks and one game to get his side ready for the Hurricanes – a team that he won 57 Super Caps for. And it is fair to say the trial game against the Top League All-Stars didn't exactly inspire confidence.
But there was a reason for that with the All-Stars containing 11 players who make up the 53-strong Sunwolves squad.
While the familiarity didn't breed contempt, it did make for a scrappy game with players all too aware what their opponents would do.
The game also saw a number of players pick up injuries and Tiatia's selection for Saturday's game at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground sees the Sunwolves go in with a mixture of experience up front and youthful rawness in the backs.
"I can't control when the (Top League) starts and finishes," Tiatia said when asked why so many of his squad are currently rehabbing injuries. "I get my players when I get them at the start of the year."
Following Saturday's opener the Sunwolves head to their second home of Singapore to take on the Kings, before they play the Cheetahs and the Bulls in South Africa.
They return to Singapore on March 25 to take on the Stormers before finally returning to Tokyo to play the Bulls.
Later in the year the team will once again hit the road with a 3-week trip to New Zealand rounded off by their first visit to Argentina, before the they return to South Africa, via Singapore and Japan.
The season finishes on July 15 against the Blues in Tokyo, one of just four games at Chichibunomiya, which means it will be hard for the side to gain any real momentum – a pity given the tremendous support they received from fans in the nation’s capital last year.
With such a hectic travel schedule it would be no surprise, therefore, to see certain players rested for certain games.
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph hinted at this earlier in the year when he outlined his plans for the national team and the Sunwolves, who he also oversees.
"The non-travelling members of the squad will train alongside younger players not contracted to the Sunwolves,” he said. "This will give me a better understanding of the ability of the players as the coaches will be exposed to 70 players before we pick the team for the June tests (against Romania and Ireland)."
So what are the team's chances?
Some players have said two wins would be a good season, others have said four or five are achievable.
The bad news is that the other sides in the competition will know what to expect of the Sunwolves, unlike last year.
The good news is the team will have learnt from past mistakes and should be able to close out games that eluded them last year.
It bodes for an interesting five months of rugby.
- Rich Freeman: Feb 23rd 2017
Sunwolves 2017 Squad & Uniform Unveiling
Photos: John Gunning - Dec 12th 2016: Shinagawa Prince Hotel Tokyo