New Season - Who Dis?
Sunwolves Open 2018 Campaign With Some Big Names Dropped
Jamie Joseph, new Head Coach of the Hito-Communications Sunwolves, has named the team that will take on the ACT Brumbies Saturday, Feb 24th at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium. Surprisingly, star players Michael Leitch and Akihito Yamada have been left out of the match-day squad. According to Joseph neither man was ready to play. Yutaka Nagare will captain a side that includes nine new caps and 17 foreign-born players in the 23-man squad.
Assistant Coach, Tony Brown said, “Coaching this new team has had its challenges but it’s been really exciting for myself and Jamie and Scott Hanson (Defense Coach) to get this team together and get us to a stage to play Super Rugby.” This season Sunwolves join the Australian conference and play a total of eight matches home-and-away against the Brumbies, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs. They also play four teams from each of the South African and New Zealand conferences home or away. Sunwolves have eight home matches; six in Tokyo and one each in Singapore and Hong Kong. “The Brumbies are a tough opponent. It will be a challenging game for us. I anticipate they are going to put a lot of pressure on the set pieces like scrums and lineouts,” said Joseph. “Plus they have tough backs that are really hard to stop. We need to stop momentum from the source.”
In order to combat the big forward pack of the Brumbies, Joseph has selected a formidable line-up. The new-look pack boasts power and mobility with experienced Shota Horie as hooker and props Keita Inagaki and Ji-won Koo making up the front row. Powerful Grant Hattingh, who played for the South African Bulls last season, pairs up with Australian Sam Wykes in the second row, while flanker Kazuki Himeno earns his first Super Rugby cap alongside workhorse no. 8 Willem Britz and former Cheetahs and Bulls player Pieter Lappies Labuschagne. The Sunwolves backline tasked with stopping the Brumbies international mid-field and pacey back three starts with scrum-half Nagare, who will link up with No. 10 Robbie Robinson, a former Highlanders and Chiefs player who originally started his rugby career at full-back. Ryoto Nakumura makes his Super Rugby debut at inside center with Timothy Lafaele outside. On the left wing, Hosea Saumaki nicknamed “The Tongan Godzilla” for his bulldozing runs, is a player to watch.
New Zealand-born Tongan, Lomano Lava Lemeki is positioned on the opposite wing, with Jason Emery who also used to play for the Highlanders, at full-back. “We’ve just got to compete for 80 minutes,” Brown said. “Australian teams are very good at playing the full 80 and we need to do that as well.” In the reserves there is plenty of experience with Australian flanker Edward Quirk and former Highlanders Fumiaki Tanaka and Hayden Parker on the bench. Newcomers include props Craig Millar from New Zealand, Tongan-born Asaeli Ai Valu and veteran of 50 tests Jaba Bregvadze. Bregvadze is the first Georgian to play in Super Rugby.
James Moore will provide cover at lock, while Sione Teaupu is the replacement center. On paper the Sunwolves seem to have their strongest line-up to date - even without their stars - and should improve on 2017 when they managed just two wins in fifteen games. “We’ve been working really hard over the last four weeks and we put a game plan together so we’re looking to go out there tomorrow and executing the game plan as best we can,” added Brown. As for the Brumbies, they start 2018 afresh with a new coaching staff after the disappointment of being bundled out of the Super Rugby quarter-finals by the Wellington Hurricanes last season. New Head Coach Dan McKellar said, “I feel really relaxed. We had an excellent pre-season and our preparation’s been good. This is my 5th year now with the Brumbies and there’s been some succession planning there so I feel really comfortable in the role as Head Coach.”
Tomorrow’s Brumbies side will feature four players making their Super Rugby debut. “Both Rob Valentini and Isi Naisarani give us our point of difference. They’re forwards with the ability to create something,” said McKellar. “Chance Peni is from a rugby league background and he’s a genuine try scorer. He has good speed and good agility. It’s a great occasion for those guys as well as Tom Cusack who has come through our pathway system and gets an opportunity to fulfill his dream of playing for the Brumbies.” Props Allan Alaalatoa and Ben Alexander either side of hooker Josh Mann-Rea make up a hardened front row. The powerful second row sees Sam Carter with Ritchie Arnold while debutants Rob Valentini and Isi Naisarani will hunker down with Tom Cusack to form the back row.
The Brumbies also welcome back their fly-half Christian Lealiifano who is in remission after a long bout of illness. “It’s really special for me to play rugby again in Japan. I’d like to thank all the people in Japan and the rugby community for their support,” said the fly-half. Lealiifano will partner with young Wallaby Joe Powell who hopes to deliver good clean ball to their Wallaby-packed back line. Tevita Kuridrani and Kyle Godwin are in mid-field, with the dangerous Henry Speight, debutant Chance Peni and Tom Banks forming a lethal back three. From the replacement bench, Robbie Abel, Faalellei Sione and Les Leuluaialii-Makin will provide cover for the front row while Rory Arnold and Lachlan McCaffrey will be the second and back row reserves. Also on the bench is new scrumhalf Matt Lucas who is joined by the Brumbies playmaker New Zealand-born Wharenui Hawera with Lausii Taliauli as back-up winger.
The Brumbies will be confident, going into the match on the back of two preseason warm-up games where they comfortably beat the Rebels and put in a solid second half performance against the Chiefs. Brumbies Head Coach said, “For our first game, there’s always going to be an element of rust, to all teams Brumbies included. It’s just the nature of the first game of the competition. Our instructions will be pretty simple. We don’t want to complicate things. We’ll have a clear plan, a clear message in terms of how we want to play tomorrow.” On the other hand, although the Sunwolves have had a longer training period together than last year what they have lacked is a pre-season hit-out with another Super Rugby team or even a select Japanese team. “Obviously there have been no trial games played by the Sunwolves, no vision of them. It’s a little bit of unknown,” said McKellar. “We’re just concentrating on our plan, executing our plan, getting the process right and not worrying too much about the opposition.” These two teams last met back in 2016 in Canberra, Australia where the Brumbies ran out 66 - 5 winners.
However, with the 2019 Rugby World Cup just around the corner, the Sunwolves are looking to start strong and show Super Rugby and their fans that they have grown and are ready to showcase their unique brand of Japanese rugby. “Physically, Super Rugby is a lot harder than Top League rugby and we need to be ready for that,” said Brown. “Traditionally, we are very good at playing high speed so we want to do this against the Brumbies.”
- Todd Phillips: February 24th 2018
Sunwolves / Brumbies Captain's Run
Photos: Sachiyo Karamatsu Feb 23rd 2018: Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground