Preview: Sunwolves v Hurricanes

Date published: February 24 2017

The Sunwolves face the ominous task of being the first side in 2017 to take on defending champions the Hurricanes.

A new head coach and substantially altered squad await the men from Wellington this Saturday but optimism will be high for the Japanese franchise going into their second season, with the strain that comes with a Super Rugby schedule now familiar.

Those involved with the Sunwolves last season will benefit from that experience but recruits with years in Super Rugby under their belts have also been recruited, particularly upfront where Sam Wykes (Force) and Willie Britz (Cheetahs) can add plenty of knowledge.

Filo Tiatia is the new man in charge in place of Mark Hammett and aside from hoping for some hard-nosed performances from those upfront, where Shota Horie and Liaki Moli in particular are key figures along with captain Ed Quirk, it is in the back where the Sunwolves might cause some excitement.

Saturday's contest however is likely to be a sore reality check, given the problems the Hurricanes posed so many defences in 2016 and how often the Sunwolves leaked tries.

Not only will this be the Sunwolves’ first encounter with the Hurricanes, but it will be their first Super Rugby encounter with a New Zealand team also.

An inconsistent outing against a Top League XV last weekend was more about trying combinations as opposed to racking up a big score, and to go from that to face a well-drilled outfit like the Hurricanes is some ask.

As for the champions, the odds of repeating in Super Rugby are far from easy but there is a settled feel to their side heading into the new season, with head coach Chris Boyd having enough confidence in his depth to leave Dane Coles and Beauden Barrett – both nominated for World Player of the Year in 2016 which Barrett won – to rest on the bench.

The Hurricanes' ability to attack from anywhere is well know but the focus on Saturday and beyond will centre on how Jordie Barrett, brother of Beauden, fares at either full-back, along with the progress this season of the likes of Ricky Riccitelli, Michael Fatialofa and Vaea Fifita.

Anything less than a bonus-point win to kick off the new year would be viewed as an extreme disappointment and with that does come a level of pressure, but then again the Hurricanes feel well equipped to achieve that goal.

The Hurricanes have won only one of their last six games to open a Super Rugby season (22-8 v Lions in 2015), but that now seems certain to change.

Players to watch: Among the new faces ahead of the new season for the Sunwolves is Takaaki Nakazuru, who was named Top League MVP at the end of the season with Suntory Sungoliath following his collection of tries. With Akihito Yamada gone the Sunwolves desperately need him to find the whitewash on a regular basis. Timothy Lafaele is a bruising runner at outside centre and his combination with Nakazuru should keep the Sunwolves honest on Saturday.

As for the visitors, Otere Black gets a rare start with Beauden Barrett on the bench, and the former New Zealand U20 star has shown glimpses of promise so far in his short career. All eyes naturally will also be on Ardie Savea who is a blockbuster performer in the back-row. He made 20 clean breaks in the 2016 season, more than any other forward in the competition, and more are likely to come in Tokyo.

Teams news: Tiatia has made numerous changes from the team who rounded off the 2016 season against the Sharks, with a brand new tight five, new half-backs, and three new faces in the backline as well. Riaan Viljoen, Derek Carpenter, Edward Quirk and Liaki Moli are the survivors from that game, with Moli this time starting in the second row rather than at blindside flanker.

As for the Hurricanes, Coles' absence from the starting spot means scrum-half TJ Perenara will captain the side with Ricky Riccitelli wearing the number two jersey between props Jeffery To'omaga-Allen and Chris Eves. One player who will be a rookie in Tokyo is Jordie Barrett who is set to make his Super Rugby debut at full-back. The 20-year-old has impressed during the Hurricanes preseason and gets an early chance to impress in the competition proper after a hamstring injury ruled Nehe Milner-Skudder out of the first match.

Form: The Sunwolves have won one and drawn one of their last four games on home soil, and have kept their opposition to single figures in the opening half of two of their last three games at home. Pre-season outings have included a win for the Sunwolves over a Top League XV last weekend, while the Hurricanes got the better of the Crusaders in their run-out.

Prediction: Such a tough start for the Sunwolves with the Hurricanes expected to carry on from where they left off. Having never faced a New Zealand outfit before, the Sunwolves will learn a lot, but the lesson might be painful. Hurricanes by 30.

The teams:

Sunwolves: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Hikaru Tamura, 9 Keisuke Uchida, 8 Willem Britz, 7 Edward Quirk, 6 Malgene Ilaua, 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Heiichiro Ito, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Masataka Mikami
Replacements: 16 Takeshi Hino, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Kotaro Yatabe, 20 Shokei Kin, 21 Kaito Shigeno, 22 Ryohei Yamanaka, 23 Shota Emi

Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Otere Black, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Jeffery To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Chris Eves
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ben May, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Vince Aso

Date: Saturday, February 25
Venue: Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium
Kick-off: 13:15 local (04:15 GMT)
Referee: Egon Seconds (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Akihisa Aso (Japan)
TMO: Minoru Fuji (Japan)