OPINION: The Sunwolves’ introduction to Super Rugby has not been easy.
When they joined the competition for the first time in 2016, the public had no real idea what to expect from the team from Tokyo.
Comprised primarily of expats who failed to win contracts in other Super Rugby territories, alongside a scattering of Japanese players, there certainly weren’t high expectations for Japan’s first foray into Super Rugby.
That first year was particularly tough, with the Sunwolves recording just one win, against fellow new-entrants the Jaguares. There was the odd close game, but there were also some pretty devastating results. The Bulls, Waratahs, Brumbies and Cheetahs all clocked up half-centuries against the Sunwolves, with the Cheetahs racking up 92 points.
2017 wasn’t significantly better for the Sunwolves. They pried themselves off the bottom of the table, courtesy of the Rebels’ awful form as well as wins against the Blues and Bulls. Once again, however, the half-century mark was passed on four occasions – this time coming at the hands of the Hurricanes, Crusaders, Lions and Stormers. The Hurricanes and the Lions scored 83 and 94 points respectively.
2018 marked the third season in a row that the Sunwolves conceded 50 points in four games, with the Sharks, Chiefs and Waratahs getting in on the action – the Waratahs doing the double. The Sunwolves were actually on the right side of a rout for the first time, however, dismantling the Reds in Tokyo, 63-28. Overall, the season had a familiar feel to it – once more, a last place finish.
It’s been a slightly different story in 2019.
There have been a couple of comprehensive losses to date, going down 15-42 against the Rebels in Melbourne and 10-45 against the Sharks in Singapore, but otherwise the Sunwolves have been competitive in all of their matches. Certainly, there have been no signs of the regular smashings that were all too common in the first three years of the Sunwolves’ existence.
Ironically, the powers-that-be have decided that the Sunwolves are no longer the right fit for Super Rugby and will be vanquished from the competition from the start of the 2021 season – now that the Sunwolves have finally started to find their feet.
Questions have always existed concerning the validity of the Sunwolves’ place in Super Rugby. Results to date have obviously been poor and – perhaps more frustratingly – the Sunwolves have effectively been operating as team of mercenaries, bringing in players from all over the world, instead of actually developing Japanese players.
One of the above issues, on its own, would likely be permissible. If the Sunwolves were competitive then they wouldn’t damage the integrity of the competition, or if the Sunwolves were grooming young Japanese nationals then perhaps the future potential of the team would justify their inclusion.
Instead, however, we’re left with a situation where the team churns through foreign players at an exceptional rate – using over 150 players in their three and a half seasons of existence – and fails to bring in wins.
All that aside, there has certainly been a marked improvement in the Sunwolves’ performance in 2019, with a huge factor being the presence of new coach Tony Brown.
Wins against the Chiefs and the Waratahs have been the highlights to date, but the Sunwolves have also come close in a number of their other matches.
That being said, although the Sunwolves’ losses have certainly not been as comprehensive as in previous years, you could make a strong argument that they’ve been equally as frustrating and gut-wrenching.
In the Sunwolves’ nine game to date this season, they’ve been the first to score points in six of those matches. They’ve actually been ahead in five of their games at halftime but they’ve only gone on to win two of those fixtures.
The Sunwolves have had no issues racking up a lead – but they’ve struggled to close out a match after getting ascendancy early. In fact, only once have the Sunwolves actually outscored their opposition in the second half of a match this season – and that was against the Lions after they were already down by 19 at halftime. The Lions ultimately won that fixture 37-24.
Of biggest concern to coach Brown will be the magnitude of some of the turnarounds in matches.
Being ahead by a couple of points and ultimately failing to capitalise is not necessarily a huge issue – the team in front after 10 or 15 minutes of a game isn’t always going to be the victor come fulltime.
In some matches, however, it’s not just a small lead that the Sunwolves are giving up.
In round 5 of the competition, the Sunwolves played host to the Reds. The two teams traded tries early on but at halftime the Sunwolves had built up a respectable 16-point lead. It wasn’t until the 65th minute of the game when hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa crashed over for a try that the Reds actually took the lead in the match for the first time.
The Sunwolves took the lead back only three minutes later through a try of their own, but the Reds had the final say of the game, kicking a penalty in the 79th minute to take the spoils 34-31.
The Sunwolves were on the right side of the scoreboard for all but 4 minutes of that clash and yet somehow found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
It was a similar story in Tokyo on Saturday night when the Sunwolves hosted the Hurricanes.
The Sunwolves were the first to score, through flier Semisi Masirewa, and by the 30th minute of the match held a commanding 23-7 lead. From that point on, however, it was all the Hurricanes – who won the game 29-23.
Giving up small leads in a number of games can just be chalked up to chance – the Sunwolves managed to get ahead a few times due to the luck of the bounce, but they were ultimately not the better team in the match. When you’re giving up huge leads, however, it’s worth assessing if there’s a bigger problem at hand.
Certainly, you could question the strengths of the reserves bench – there were certainly a few hairy throws into the lineout from replacement hooker Atsushi Sakate – but sometimes the Sunwolves are giving up the fight before the reserves even hit the field. Lineouts have been issue for the team from day one.
Tony Brown seems to think it’s just an issue of experience.
“Pressure is a funny thing. The Hurricanes won Super Rugby a few years ago and always make the playoffs. They understand what winning key moments are all about. The only way for us to do it is to be put in that position week-in, week-out, year-in, year-out,” Brown said after the Hurricanes match, indicating that with a few more seasons in Super Rugby, perhaps the Sunwolves would be better placed to win crunch games.
The Sunwolves don’t have a few more years, however, so we have to hope that Brown has some alternative quick fixes to the issue. Looking through the team, player by player, there are also plenty of squad members who have plenty of experience at Super Rugby level, such as Paulisi Manu, Mark Abbott, captain Dan Pryor and Hayden Parker – so perhaps there’s more to it than simple experience.
The Sunwolves have shown in 2019 that with a bit more time in the competition they could well start regularly challenging other teams. For all their industry and inventiveness, however, there’s still something missing at the Sunwolves that’s preventing them from closing out matches – and Tony Brown will want to figure out the issue as soon as possible.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now