Hastily assembled and with the bare minimum of preparation, Super Rugby debutants the Sunwolves will give Japanese fans a reality check after the national team’s dream run at the World Cup last year.
Japan’s Sunwolves and Argentina’s Jaguares join the Super Rugby tournament in an expanded 18-team format, marking the first time teams from outside New Zealand, Australia and South Africa will play in the competition.
Super Rugby involvement was expected to be the next big evolutionary step for 2019 World Cup hosts Japan but preparations were derailed after Eddie Jones, who masterminded Japan’s shock defeat of South Africa at the World Cup, quit as director of the Sunwolves.
Citing a lack of ambition by the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU), Jones left to join South Africa’s Stormers, before making a quick switch to take over the England job.
The Sunwolves were unable to find a coach until December, finally naming former Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett as the man to lead them in their inaugural campaign.
“Eddie was counted on to handle everything and his departure was the reason preparations floundered,” said Kazuhiro Tamura, managing editor of Japan’s Rugby Magazine.
Only starting their training this month that included just one warm-up match, the Sunwolves face the Lions at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
The delay in preparations saw the Sunwolves miss out on a number of leading local players, including fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who opted for Queensland Reds, while captain Michael Leitch and scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka rejoined the Waikato Chiefs and Otago Highlanders. Emerging talent Male Sa’u went to the Auckland Blues.
The Sunwolves still attracted 10 Japan internationals with World Cup experience and drew a crowd exceeding 10,000 in their warm-up match against Japan’s Top League XV in Toyota.
Coach Hammett, a former All Black, said one of the season’s keys would be to play to their strengths.
“We are against South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, Argentineans – big sides – so it is important we play our style, our brand of rugby that we can throw the ball around and be innovative in the way we play,” he said.
Fast-paced rugby enabled Japan to shock the Springboks at the World Cup in England last year but the Sunwolves may struggle to emulate the national team.
“Japan went to the World Cup well prepared,” Rugby Magazine’s Tamura added. “It trained more than any other country, was fitter than the rest and had the best coach. But most of these factors are missing from the Sunwolves.”
The Sunwolves also play three of their eight “home” games in Singapore, a concession made before beating out the city state’s Super Rugby bid, adding to their strenuous travel itinerary.
While a poor season will disappoint the legions of new rugby fans, the Sunwolves can draw solace from the struggles of other expansion sides.
Western Force won one match, drew two and lost 10 in 2006, while the Melbourne Rebels won three and lost 13 in their 2011 maiden season.
“For the future and development of the game, it is huge for (Japan’s) Top League players who haven’t been exposed to top level international rugby week in, week out,” said former Japan captain Andrew McCormick.
“What was lacking was that high international level of rugby and now a lot more players can be exposed to it.”
Japan hooker Shota Horie, Japan scrumhalf Atsushi Hiwasa and Samoa flyhalf Tusi Pisi are among the Sunwolves to watch, McCormick said.