The Sunwolves, Japan's first Super Rugby franchise, will assemble for the first time this week as the team's maiden campaign draws closer.
Players and staff of the side will be acquainted with one another, before undergoing a series of medical tests at the national sports institute in northern Tokyo on Thursday and Friday. They will then depart for the first of two training camps the following week, with their solitary warm-up match scheduled for Saturday, February 13 against a Top League XV at Toyota Stadium.
After speaking with numerous Top League players and coaches in recent weeks, it transpires several high-profile players and coaches in Japan were approached by the Sunwolves, including one current Japan international and head coach of a Top League side.
Those players in question turned down the offer to play for the Japanese franchise due to their heavy involvement with Japan at the 2015 World Cup and the Top League this term. Another five months of top-level rugby would have been too much of a physical burden. Things may have been different had the Sunwolves held off another year and entered Super Rugby in 2017.
Even though the most notable Japan national team players such as number eight Michael Leitch, scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and full-back Ayumu Goromaru were quickly snapped up their Super Rugby rivals, the Sunwolves can still boast a strong Japanese core to the team. The forwards in the squad alone have an impressive 275 international caps for Japan between them.
Little secret has been made of the fact that this has been a rushed process and marketing of the Super Rugby franchise so far has been minimal. Merchandise is set to go on sale only in mid-February due to the late announcement of sponsors such as Citizen Watch Company and HITO-Communications, with the latter even featuring on the club's logo.
Compared to past new additions to Super Rugby though, Mark Hammett's side have been allowed little time to prepare.
The Southern Kings had almost four years between forming and making their Super Rugby bow. Formed in 2009, the Kings played games against the British and Irish Lions in 2009, then facing Georgia, Romania and Portugal in the 2011 IRB Nations Cup, before finally playing their first Super Rugby match in February 2013, thus allowing them ample time to generate interest, sponsors and fans in that 44-month period.
Japan was only granted a license for a franchise in October 2014, a mere 16 months prior to their opening game. Some blame has to be attributed to SANZAR for granting the license to Japan at such short notice.
It will be a tough debut season for the Sunwolves and victories are likely to be few and far between. Sit back and enjoy the ride though. We must remember this is a learning process for the Japanese players, staff and fans as rugby continues its expansion into Asia and Japan.
by Oliver Trenchard