Sunwolves back up suggestion of progress

Date published: April 8 2017

What better time to secure a first win of the year than the day before Super Rugby makes a major announcement on the structure of the tournament.

Axing the Sunwolves was never really on the table, partly as a result of only being introduced to the competition in 2016 and given the expanding market in Japan.

The fate of the Cheetahs, Kings and Force has felt settled for the last few weeks, and should be confirmed on Sunday.

Even if the Sunwolves were not under threat, watching their second-half performance at home to the Bulls was reassuring proof that this side is beginning to find its feet.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer of course but two well-executed facets of their game in Saturday’s win stood out; the Sunwolves’ ball retention on attack and the speed and persistence of their rush defence.

Yu Tamura and Hayden Cripps have swapped the fly-half jersey all season long but Tamura’s direction and inter-play with Super Rugby veteran¬†Fumiaki Tanaka had a huge impact in the second half, when the Sunwolves were noticeably confident in spreading the ball wide while maintaining ball security at the breakdown.

That ambition and execution stuck out up against the unimaginative up-and-unders from the Bulls – of who much more was expected having given the Chiefs a run for their money the week before.

Back to the Sunwolves, the lack of forwards capable of breaking the gain-line remains an issue for head coach Filo Tiatia.

Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco was a useful outlet at number eight on his debut, grabbing that early try, but¬†Kotaro Matsushima’s strip after he tried a short-range carry and the subsequent try for Travis Ismaiel proved that the Sunwolves still desperately need big bodies in that back row to get them round the corner.

Moves in the off-season for any or all of Michael Leitch, Hendrik Tui and Amanaki Mafi – all Japan back-rows – has to be a priority.

Tiatia and the Sunwolves coaching staff on the other hand have recognised their lack of size in certain areas against more muscle-obsessed outfits like the Bulls and smartly concluded speed is the answer.

Backing that philosophy proved highly successful, particularly late on with the game on the line as the Sunwolves’ rush defence engulfed Warrick Gelant and the rest of the Bulls backs searching for an outside break.

Smarter sides will recognise the Sunwolves sprinting out of the defensive line and use their kicking game to nullify the threat of on-rushing defenders, but against the flat-footed Bulls it worked perfectly, repeatedly forcing mistakes and building pressure.

There are still too many missed one-on-one tackles – see the tries for Burger Odendaal and Ismaiel – but overall as a system maximising the resources available, Tiatia deserves a pat on the back for pulling off a first win of the season, as do his players for the heart and hunger they showed in the closing stages.

The fact that this first win was achieved without a number of front-line Sunwolves players, including skipper Ed Quirk and last season’s captain Shota Horie, will make it taste even sweeter, and when their attack begins to click the Sunwolves are an absolute joy to watch.

No one is expecting them to go to Christchurch next and inflict a first defeat of the year on the Crusaders.

Yet the suggestion that progress is being made and now some evidence to back that up, in contrast to a Bulls outfit stuck in a downward spiral, is a feel-good moment for both the Sunwolves and the whole of Super Rugby at a difficult time.

by Ben Coles