Before the start of Super Rugby 2016 we take a closer look at each of the sides in the competition. Next up, the Sunwolves.
“Japan will have 18 top-level rugby games in 2016, 15 of which will be Sunwolves,” declared JRFU director of rugby Masahiro Kunda at a press conference last month, outlining the country’s grand plan in the lead-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
That statement from Kunda underlines just how crucial JRFU view the Sunwolves in regard to the development of the national team in the coming years. Players on the fringes of the national team will gain exposure to world-class rugby and test themselves against elite opposition during the six-month absence of the Top League, Japan’s domestic rugby competition.
Billed as Asia’s first Super Rugby franchise, the Sunwolves will play five of their seven home games at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya stadium, a rugby venue recently labelled ‘a beach’ by one Japan international, with the remaining two matches held in Singapore.
This Year: Head coach Mark Hammett has been granted little time by the JRFU to mark his stamp on the Sunwolves, with the team’s first full training session taking place only on February 8, a mere 19 days prior to their curtain-raiser at home to Lions.
Nevertheless, they did run in eight tries in their only warm-up match last weekend against a Top League XV and this may breed confidence into the side, who have already been written off by many and tipped to secure the wooden spoon.
Less than 65 percent of the squad are Japanese, the lowest proportion of home country players in a Super Rugby team in 2016, with spots in the side filled by lesser-known players from overseas due to the more prominent Japan internationals opting to play overseas.
Key Players: Samoan fly-half Tusi Pisi impressed in that 52-24 defeat of the Top League XV, touching down following a fine solo run and pulling the strings at number ten.
The 33-year-old already has a strong relationship with scrum-half Atsushi Hiwasa from their time together in Japan with Suntory Sungoliath, and the duo should be permanent fixtures at half-back.
In the pack, captain Shota Horie will be aiming to lead by example for the Sunwolves and transfer his superb form at club level in the Top League, where he has been named the league’s MVP in two of the most recent three seasons, to Super Rugby.
Horie is no stranger to Super Rugby either, having become the first Japanese player to feature for an Australian team when plying his trade for Rebels.
Players to Watch: Winger Akihito Yamada, teammate of Horie at Panasonic Wild Knights, also shone in the Top League last season and looks good money to finish as Sunwolves’ top try-scorer in their maiden Super Rugby campaign.
Yamada is a key component of Japan Sevens team and can often be found playing American football during the off-season. Twinkle-toed and partial to the odd sidestep or two, the 30-year-old is sure to be one of the poster boys for the Sunwolves this term.
Prospects: Hammett will be intent on improving his defence in the remaining two weeks of pre-season, having shipped three tries to the Top League XV last weekend against a level of opposition some way below the Sunwolves will take on this season.
There were some flickers of genius from Pisi and the rest of the backline, and Hammett will look to them to provide an edge over the opposition.
Sunwolves may well be outmuscled in the scrum and at the breakdown, starting a back row consisting of all-foreign players last time out with just one Super Rugby cap between them.
Many critics and experts alike wrote off Japan’s chances at the World Cup last year though and don’t be surprised if the Sunwolves produce a few similarly surprising results throughout the course of the 2016 Super Rugby season…
Squad: Ryuhei Arita, Timothy Bond, Andrew Durutalo, Ziun Gu, Shohei Hirano, Shota Horie, Yoshiya Hofsoda, Keita Inagaki, Shinnosuke Kakinaga, Takeshi Kizu, Yamamoto Koki, Faatiga Lemalu, Tomas Leonardi, Shinya Makabe, Masataka Mikami, Liaki Moli, Tsuyoshi Murata, Hitoshi Ono, Eddie Quirk, Derek Carpenter, Atsushi Hiwasa, Daisuke Inoue, Amanaki Lotoahea, Paea Mifi Poseti, Tusi Pisi, Yusataka Sasakura, John Stewart, Yu Tamura, Harumichi Tatekawa, Riaan Viljoen, Akihito Yamada, Ryohei Yamanaka, Hajime Yamashita, Yuki Yatomi
Saturday, 27 Feb vs Lions (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Round 2: BYE
Saturday, 12 March vs Cheetahs (Singapore National Stadium)
Saturday, 19 March vs Rebels (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 26 March vs. Bulls (Singapore National Stadium)
Saturday, 2 April vs Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Friday, 8 April vs Stormers (DHL Newlands, Cape Town)
Friday, 15 April vs Cheetahs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, 23 April vs Jaguares (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Round 10: BYE
Saturday, 7 May vs Force (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 14 May vs Stormers (Singapore National Stadium)
Saturday, 21 May vs Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, 28 May vs Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, 2 July vs Waratahs (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 9 July vs Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Friday, 15 July vs Sharks (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)