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Last hurrah? Sunwolves on the brink of extinction - Super Rugby 2019 Preview

By Tom Vinicombe
The Sunwolves could be entering their last season of Super Rugby. (Photos/Gettys Images)

When Jamie Joseph took over as coach of the Sunwolves for the 2018 Super Rugby season, he set the lofty target of finishing in the top five of the competition. In the previous season, the Sunwolves had finished in 15th position – last place.


Given that in the 20-year history of the competition there have been only five instances of teams jumping more than eight places between seasons (and on three of those occasions, the team actually won the competition in the second year), it’s fair to say that this target was not just unrealistic, but bordering on the fantastical.

The Sunwolves ended up finishing in last place once more, though they managed one more win than in 2017. Needless to say, no one was surprised when the team didn’t quite make the top five.

Since the Tokyo-based team was added to the competition in 2016, they’ve had a tough time accruing consistent results. They’ve grabbed five different scalps over their three years since formation and with Super Rugby’s structure up in the air beyond 2019, there must be some serious thought going into whether the Sunwolves continue to demand a place in a competition that has been through countless iterations in a relatively short period of time.

The short of it is that the Sunwolves are an endangered species and unless they manage to turn things around this year, extinction could come sooner rather than later.

No more empty promises

After last year’s targets were unmet, Jamie Joseph has wisely not made public any aspirations for the team for 2019.

The Sunwolves, since their inception, has been a gateway for Super Rugby to tap into the Asian market and develop the game in Japan. Whilst no one has necessarily expected great results from the team, there has been a presumption that Japanese player development was on the cards. Looking through the squad for 2019, it’s clear to see that the Sunwolves have once again opted for only a smattering of Japanese players, instead, recruiting a number of expats.


Without getting too much into the details, there are complex relationships between the Japanese Rugby Union, the national team, the Sunwolves and Japan’s local Top League competition. These relationships no doubt have an impact on who the Sunwolves actually have access to – but it’s safe to say that many of the top Japanese players will not be turning out for the team. With national team camps occurring throughout the seasons, a number of the Sunwolves’ top Japanese players will be unavailable for numerous games.

With significant development once again off the cards for 2019, the Sunwolves’ results will have to speak for themselves – so it’s a relief to see that some of the new recruits for this year are not just players in the twilight of their careers.

Fearsome front row

Depth is not a word that you would have previously associated with the Sunwolves. In the past, they’ve tended to go through a long list of players every year due to injuries and other commitments. With the World Cup taking place in September and various camps set up throughout the season, it looks like this won’t change for 2019 – however, the front row is one area where there’s plenty of depth to cover any absences.

The Sunwolves have lost bit-part players Takuma Asahara and Shintaro Ishihara, but in their places come Pauliasi Manu and Sam Prattley, from the Blues and the Chiefs respectively. Manu, in particular, is a force at prop and should still have a few seasons ahead of him. Given Manu travelled to the 2015 Rugby World Cup as an injury replacement for New Zealand, he’s one of the few players to have a World Cup winner’s medal without having ever played an international match – the Sunwolves are one of the few squads in the competition to actually have a World Cup winner in their midst.


Hiroshi Yamashita, who appeared for the Chiefs in 2016, has been named in the Sunwolves’ squad for the first time having notched up a half-century of games for the Japan national team. Alongside the likes of Manu, Japanese hooker Shota Horie and Sunwolves stalwart Keita Inagaki, Yamashita should form part of a powerful front row.

Joseph calls on home

Although it is disappointing to see so many foreign players in the Sunwolves squad, regardless of the reasons, Jamie Joseph has managed to bring a number of able Super Rugby performers into the fold for the upcoming season – with most of them hailing from back home in New Zealand.

Brothers Dan and Kara Pryor have both represented the Maori All Blacks side and will bolster a loose forward contingency already rife with South African and Australian expats. It looks like all of the Sunwolves’ loose forwards will be foreign-born for the upcoming season – though of course, a number of the loosies are members of the national squad, including talismanic captain Michael Leitch as well as Hendrik Tui, who has spent the last two years with the Sunwolves.

Phil Burleigh and Rene Ranger are the other two new Kiwi recruits that stand out. Both players are perhaps past their heydays but that shouldn’t stop them contributing significantly to the Sunwolves for 2019.

After spending most of his career in New Zealand, Burleigh relocated to Scotland where he was able to earn selection in the national team. His midfield combination with Michael Little, who was probably the best performing Sunwolf in 2018, could prove to be one of the more useful pairs in the competition.

Ranger, a player who left New Zealand for France when he was arguably at the top of his game, hasn’t returned to the form that once made him such an integral part of the Blues squad. He still, however, possesses the X-factor in droves and will likely be on the end of a number of tries for 2019.

Dual squads

With so many of the Sunwolves’ Japanese players forced to sit out for lengthy spells, it’s no wonder there’s such a huge foreign contingent in the squad for 2019 – it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see a matchday 23 excluding any Japanese players take the field at various points throughout the season.

This quirk effectively means that the squad has, in some cases, two first-choice players in each position. This is evident in the halves where we’ll quite possibly see a combination of either Fumiaki Tanaka and Yu Tamura, or new recruit Jamie Booth and ex-Highlander Hayden Parker (who made a huge impact for the team last year).

For a team that is arguably already the weakest in the competition in terms of sheer ability, this disruption throughout the season could stifle any chances of the Sunwolves being able to perform consistently.

For many supporters of Super Rugby – and the game in general – the Sunwolves has become a de facto second team. It’s always thrilling to see an underdog come out on top and, in most instances, the Sunwolves have been the underdog in matches.

Of course, everyone also wants to see the sport grow in Japan and the Sunwolves are the first step towards really improving Japan’s placing in the world market. All signs point to a difficult season ahead for the men from Tokyo but you can guarantee that there will be a huge number of supporters at every match (and watching from their couches). Regardless of the number of supporters, however, Super Rugby can’t continue to simply be a marketing opportunity for the Japanese Rugby Union.

Another poor season, results wise, could well be the final nail in the coffin for Japan’s involvement in Super Rugby.

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