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Sunwolves biting the hand that no longer feeds them - and what it means for Japan's Rugby World Cup

By Tom Vinicombe
The 2019 Sunwolves season was always doomed. (Photos by Getty Images)

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OPINION: It’s been a funny old year for Japanese rugby.


In early March, the Sunwolves achieved their first ever win on New Zealand soil when they conquered the Chiefs. Less than a month later, they had broken another duck by toppling the Waratahs in Sydney. That win represented their first in Australia.

In the almost two months since, the Sunwolves have failed to pick up any more victories.

The season promised so much for the Tokyo-based side – especially on the back of those two outstanding victories. The return to underwhelming results will ensure that 2019 is written off as just another disappointing year for Sunwolves and Japanese rugby fans.

But it gets worse.

Struck from the register

In late March, shortly before the win over the Waratahs, it was announced that the Sunwolves would be cut from Super Rugby from 2021 onward.

Various explanations were given for the culling. Ultimately, the decision seemed to be based on the fact that Super Rugby was becoming a hard-sell as a premier competition when you include a team that wins fewer than 15% of its matches.

Of course, the Sunwolves were first included in Super Rugby as a means of growing the sport in the Asia region. There was little expectation that a Japanese team would be able to compete with franchises from the rest of the SANZAAR region – at least in the short term.


The fact that the Sunwolves have been using so many non-Japanese players in their side has probably contributed to the wider public’s growing disappointment with the team. It’s hard to argue that the Sunwolves are going to boost Japan’s international performance when a significant proportion of the squad are ineligible for the national team.

When the cull was announced, the Japan Rugby Union released a statement indicating they had decided Super Rugby was not the best way forwards for the country – perhaps simply as a way of saving face. At this point in time, given the JRU’s new beliefs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a Sunwolves squad in 2020 completely devoid of Japanese players.

Whether cutting the Sunwolves was in Super Rugby and Japanese rugby’s best interests or not, it certainly appears that the competition is already facing repercussions from the cull.

The biggest squad ever seen in Super Rugby

The Sunwolves have brought 68 different players into their squad in 2019. That is an absolutely astronomical figure.

When the New Zealand Super Rugby squads were announced back in August, they included 38 players. For contrast, the Sunwolves have used 40 forwards this year.


Of course, injured players have to be replaced in squads – and the Sunwolves haven’t had much luck with injuries. Neither, though, have the Chiefs – but they’ve still only used 46 players.

As a matter of fact, it’s not injuries that have led to so many players being named for the Sunwolves – it’s simply due to the Japanese national team’s World Cup development squad.

The lone wolf dies but the pack survives

At various points throughout the season, a number of players have been pulled from the Sunwolves and called into the Wolfpack, as the development team is known. These players, naturally, have required replacing in the Super Rugby squad.

Wolfpack players sometimes return to the Sunwolves for certain weeks in the competition, but they’re also often pulled back into the development side later on.

Effectively, there’s a constant roundabout of players joining and leaving the squad. This, as most would imagine, would cause significant disruptions in team set-up and planning.

The Sunwolves have looked like a team just coming out of their pre-season for most of the year, and that’s probably partially because the team has struggled to build combinations due to lack of time together. You simply can’t expect a team to regularly perform and improve when there are so many changes in the team environment.

That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that coach Tony Brown has also spent a significant proportion of the year with the Wolfpack. Assistant Scott Hansen was handed the reins from the start of the season until mid-March, and has now resumed the role as acting head coach until the end of the season.

Brown only took over as top dog this year after assisting in 2018 and it has already been announced that he will be returning home to the Highlanders in 2020.

All these changes have ultimately contributed to the Sunwolves having a very poor season, and is an insult to the team as a whole.

Naturally, international rugby is the apex of the sport and some compromised must be made at the lower levels from time to time. In New Zealand, All Black have had to sit out various matches to ensure that they are not over-worked come the World Cup.

Japan, however, has taken this to a whole new level. It’s no wonder Super Rugby is losing its lustre when even the Sunwolves are putting out a shadow side each week.

The JRU may argue that they no longer have any obligation to Super Rugby, given their impending eviction, but you also have to question what the Japanese national side are gaining from their preparations.

Preparing for the best by preying on the worst

Obviously assembling the Wolfpack ensures that the Brave Blossoms have as much preparation and time together before the World Cup as possible, which is a great thing. That being said, one of the best ways to prepare for top level rugby, surprisingly enough, is to actually be playing top level rugby.

Before the World Cup kicks off, Japan have four international fixtures. First up, they will play Fiji, Tonga and the United States in the Pacific Nations Cup from late July to early August. Next up they will take on the Springboks in early September in a rematch of their historic match at the last World Cup.

Whilst most national representatives around the world have being warming up for the international season in premier club competitions such as Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership, many of the Japanese players have had nothing even close to this level of play.

Some players have flitted in and out of the Sunwolves and have managed to turn out for some Super Rugby matches here and there, but when they’re off with the Wolfpack the matches have been of a considerably lower standard.

Cast your eye over the Wolfpack’s opposition this year and make a decision whether you think they or the Sunwolves have had higher calibre matches in 2019: Hurricanes B (twice), Highlanders B, Western Force and Melbourne Rising (the Rebels’ second team).

National coach Jamie Joseph is obviously a very clever man, but to the outside observer it’s hard to find an explanation for why Japanese players have had such limited game time in 2019. Michael Leitch has yet to play a match – whether this is due to injury or because he’s being rested for the World Cup is unknown. Both of those possibilities should be equally worrying for Japan supporters.

Japan will need to be at the top of their game to do well at their home World Cup this year. Ireland, Scotland and Samoa all have comfortable win rates against the tournament’s sole Asian representative while Russia won’t be pushovers either. If the Brave Blossoms do go into the tournament undercooked then they could be in for a very torrid time – which won’t do anything for the sport in Japan.

Already the Sunwolves have received the axe from Super Rugby, severely hampering Japanese player development for the future. For the future of rugby in the country, Japan needs to perform at the World Cup. If the team does look more cohesive and well-drilled than in the past and secures some positive results, then Jamie Joseph should be hailed as a mastermind. If the opposite occurs, then it’s very easy to see where the planning has gone wrong.


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