From the outside this year it’s been easy to criticise the Sunwolves haphazard start to life in Super Rugby. But what’s it like on the inside?
Going off the enthusiasm of back-row Ed Quirk it sounds like a hell of a ride. Yes, the Sunwolves have only won a single match in their debut season. But for Quirk playing for this side is about more than a win-loss record.
To recap, Quirk left the Reds at the end of 2015 following six years playing for his home franchise, a run which included winning the Super Rugby title in 2011.
The reason for his departure was that after battling with a serious knee injury during his last two years with the Reds, they opted to release him. Then the Sunwolves called, and Quirk made the move to Japan.
“Having not played a lot of games due to the knee injury, I think a refresher for me was just as good as a holiday. I would say it was probably the best decision I’ve made in terms of rugby development, coming over to Japan and loving rugby again,” he explained.
“That’s what I play the game, for pure enjoyment, and the Sunwolves have given me that.”
Quirk might have been forgiven for being a little bitter towards his former side given the manner of his departure, but he feels none of that and isn’t one to dwell on the past. Travelling back to Brisbane with his new side was a little strange, although you would be surprised if it wasn’t a touch odd returning to familiar surroundings with a different side.
“I believe you can’t really dwell on things. I felt that it was going to come and so it was just on to the next move,” he said.
“I definitely don’t have a bad word to say about the Reds, I had six years there and won a title and I loved every minute of it, and being at home in Brisbane. But all good things come to an end and the challenge for me has been a good thing.
“[Going back to Suncorp Stadium] I didn’t really think too much into it. I caught up with family and friends but it was a bit weird being in that other changing room that I had never been in, and I have a lot of good mates in that Reds side.
“Chatting to Liam Gill ahead of the game, he said “this is weird”, but at the same time I’ve trained with and against those guys for six years. I was going out there to play for family and friends and there was a big cohort of samurais in the stands. I just wanted it to be a good day.”
With the Sunwolves that sounds like most days. However the team’s start to life in Super Rugby certainly could have been smoother. Quirk had some experience of Japan from having travelled there in the past – “it’s a lovely place, good people” – but that wasn’t the case for a lot of international recruits, as the Japanese core of the side headed into training off the back of a Rugby World Cup and the conclusion of the Top League season.
Ten days. That’s how long the Sunwolves in fact had to prepare for the most gruelling competition schedule-wise in rugby. It’s a wonder they haven’t suffered more hammerings.
“Things were rushed – we had just met each other, had a week’s training, played a trial game and then the next week had our first Super Rugby game against the Lions,” Quirk explained.
“I’ve never really been a part of anything like that, usually coming from months and months of pre-season, but it was a good thing.
“Coming together that way with nothing to lose, our bodies weren’t beaten up from a huge pre-season. The boys were fit coming off the Top League season too.
“We had a meeting and said “look, it is what it is” and if you dwell on the travel and short preperatoin time that we had then it’s not going to work. Everyone just threw their money down and said “righto, let’s go all in.” We just get out there and play, that is solely it.
“We have our structures but we just play on enjoyment and have scored some unbelievable tries. We’ve also put good teams like the Stormers under pressure. Like ‘Hammer’ [head coach Mark Hammett] always says, these are good experiences for all players. I had played 50-60 games of Super Rugby but some of the players haven’t played any at all.”
Quirk’s high level of experience has made him a key leader even at just the age of 24, putting him in a better place than most to gauge how the Sunwolves season has truly gone.
So what’s his verdict? Stepping away from the results doesn’t happen a lot in the professional age but when Quirk does so, he recognises that the Sunwolves in their own unique way have been a success, with the best to come down the road. And you believe him.
“People can always point to big losses and one game out of the season. But if you put into perspective that we had one and a half weeks of training for one of the biggest competitions along with all of the travel schedule, we’ve played on enjoyment and that’s what has got us through to these last two weeks where we’ve said we’ll get to Durban, put our feet up and have a beer. I believe it’s been a good year for sure,” he explained.
“It’s taken the year to gel with different people because the Japanese style is so different. We’ve got New Zealand guys who throw the ball around, I’m the only Australia, there are South Africans, Argentinians, Americans, Tusi Pusi as well. The Japanese guys are so skilful and they’re all heart, they don’t stop.
“Some of the boys had never been there before and got the pure Japanese experience straight away. The foreign guys here all love Japan and everyone wants to go another round for sure.”
Quirk hopes to be around for next year, with his contract being re-negotiated after initially only signing on for a year, saying: “We’re going through the process now and my priority is to stay here in Japan. They gave me an opportunity which I believe I’ve taken and I hope to continue here, but at the end of the day everyone knows rugby is rugby and you have to go along with the flow.”
One person who will not be around though is Mark Hammett. The head coach has taken up a post as assistant coach with the Highlanders next year and for Quirk his absence will be an enormous loss, given how well Hammett has down to unite an international group in so little time.
“His man-management has been unbelievable. He always has a smile on his face,” Quirk added.
“He wants everyone to get down to business when we need to and everyone does, but when there’s time off he wants everyone having a blast. I believe if you’re playing out of enjoyment and fun and camaraderie then your rugby will just take over, and he’s brought that in and has been unbelievable for this team. He will be a massive loss, but coaches want to get jobs and excel just like players do.”
No Hammett then, but Quirk reckons the Sunwolves will be better organised for their second campaign even with the Top League season still running precarciously close to the start of Super Rugby.
Although whatever hurdles you put in front of the Sunwolves, you sense they’ll handle them with the same positive outlook that has carried them through their opening season. Once 2016 is in the books, 2017 will be all about making more strides. And the Sunwolves will do it by having some fun.
“We’re not just a new team anymore. It’s been a year of firsts with a first win, first games abroad in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
“Next year though that will all be familiar and rather than firsts we’ll be talking about seconds and thirds – and a lot more wins hopefully too.”