Three seasons into the Sunwolves experiment and there are already concerns about the long-term future of a Japan-based side in Super Rugby.
National coach Jamie Joseph has stepped in, their third coach in as many years, amid concerns about the competitiveness of the side. There will be many questioning keeping the team in Super Rugby after the Sunwolves survived last year’s culling.
The reality is the team has not had consistency within the squad since inception, and the biggest challenge has been the timing between the end of the Top League and the start of the Super season leaving many players underdone or top players needing a break. The Sunwolves currently have the highest turnover of players in Super Rugby.
“This team’s biggest challenge has always been the inability to have a break between seasons and the fact we don’t have enough time to prepare properly for a Super Rugby competition that lasts six months,” Joseph told Kyodo News.
Despite only notching three wins and one draw in the 30 games it has played, the Sunwolves managed to do what no Australian team could last year – beat a New Zealand franchise. Now the team is set to play in the Australian conference full time.
Moving conferences will help – the team will spend less travel time in the air and play in what is currently the weakest conference improving the chances of establishing themselves as a genuine Super Rugby team.
The result against the Blues showed there is potential for a competitive Japanese Super Rugby side but the team needs to find stability – in coaching, player personnel and equilibrium with company interests. The Japan Top League provides the Sunwolves with a large playing pool to pick from, but at the end of day, it’s the companies that bankroll the game.
“The money’s not in the international game in Japan. It’s not in the JRFU, it’s within the companies,” Berrick Barnes told Fox Sports in a recent interview.
“Companies pay their players and they’re effectively paying their Sunwolves deal. It’s that push and pull.
“Most of them are really generous and give their players and I know we do at (Panasonic), we want our players to go forward and experience that stuff. But it’s kind of hard.
With Jamie Joseph taking control, it’s clear the JRFU want to use the Sunwolves as a vehicle to the national side. If he can find a way to get the country’s best players on the field this will be a start – many players from the national side have not played for the Sunwolves.
Japanese International and ex-Chiefs loose forward Michael Leitch has returned as part of the Joseph-movement as well as a wave of Japan-based foreigners in Asaeli Ai Valu (Tonga), former Brumby Ruan Smith (South Africa), Hencas Van Wyk (South Africa), Jaba Bregvadze (Georgia), Grant Hattingh (South Africa), James Moore (Australia), Lappies Labuschagné (South Africa), Wimpie van der Walt (South Africa), Michael Little (Australia), Hosea Saumaki (Tonga).
Few will recognise this list due to the fact many have been playing in the Japan system for years.
The squad also has a number of players tied to Joseph from his Highlanders days – fullback Robbie Robinson (who has been in Japan for a few years now), first five-eighth Hayden Parkes and prop Craig Millar.
With limited time to prepare, Joseph seems intent on embedding culture before strategy.
“Our game plan is coming together quickly because the attitude is great and the players are learning quickly. And the players seem to be getting better every day. But we have to build a team before we build a game plan. If we don’t have a team then we have nothing.
Expect some turbulence in the early rounds but the team should improve as the season goes on. It will be a difficult year but with time the Sunwolves will improve and hopefully have a better foundation to build from in 2019.
Australian Conference Placing: 5th
Player of the Year: Willie Britz
Rookie of the Year: Hosea Saumaki
Breakout Player: Harumichi Tatekawa
Best Signing: Michael Leitch
Best finish: Seventeenth in 2017
Worst finish: Eighteenth in 2016
In: Asaeli Ai Valu (Wild Knights), Shintaro Ishihara (Sungoliath), Jaba Bregvadze (Worcester Warriors), Grant Hattingh (Kubota Spears), Kazuki Himeno (Toyota Verblitz), James Morre (Brave Lupus), Michael Leitch (Chiefs), Lomano Lemeki (Honda Heat), Craig Millar (Highlanders), Ruan Smith (Toyota Verblitz), Hayden Parker (Highlanders), Robbie Robinson (Ricoh Black Rams), Gerhard van den Heever (Jubilo), Wimpie van der Walt (Red Hurricanes), Akhito Yamada (Wild Knights) Hencus van Wyk (Lions), Lappies Labuschagne (Spears), Michael Little (Mitsubishi), Daishi Murata (Suntory Sungoliath), Ryoto Nakamura (Suntory Sungoliath), Sione Teaupa (Kubota Spears), Hosea Saumaki (Canon Eagles)
Out: Kohei Asahori (Verblitz), Heiichiro Ito (Jubilo), Masataka Mikami (Brave Lupus), Yasuo Yamaji (Brave Lupus), Koki Yamamoto (Jubilo), Takeshi Kizu (Steelers), Atsushi Sakate (Wild Knights), Kyosuke Kajikawa (Brave Lupus), Naohiro Kotaji (Brave Lupus), Liaki Moli (Red Dolphins), Yuya Odo (Jubilo), Hitoshi Ono (Brave Lupus), Kazuhiko Usami (Wild Knights), Kotaro Yatabe (Wild Knights), Shokei Kin (Shining Arcs), Malgene Iiaua (released), Shuhei Matsuhashi (Rams), Yuhimaru Mimura (Jubilo), Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco (Shining Arcs), Takahiro Ogawa (Brave Lupus), Kaito Shigeno (Verblitz), Yuki Yatomi (Jubilo), Hayden Cripps (Red Dolphins), Jumpei Ogura (Shining Arcs), Hikaru Tamura (Sungoliath), Michael Bond (Canon Eagles), Derek Carpenter (Suntory Sungoliath), Ryohei Yamanaka (Kobe Steelers), Shota Emi (Suntory Sungoliath), Teruya Goto (NEC Green Rockets), Ataata Moeakiola (Tokai University), Takaaki Nakazuru (Suntory Sungoliath), JJ Taulagi (Newton Abbot RFC), Riaan Viljoen (Red Hurricanes), Kazushi Hano (Shining Arcs), Rikiya Matsuda (Wild Knights), Yasutaka Sasakura (Wild Knights).
Squad: Keita Inagaki, Asaeli Ai Valu, Jiwon Koo, Ruan Smith, Craig Millar, Hencus Van Wyk, Jaba Bregvadze, Shota Horie, Grant Hattingh, Sam Wykes, Kazuki Himeno, Uwe Helu, Edward Quirk, Shunsuke Nunomaki, Wimpie van der Walt, Willem Britz, Michael Leitch, Fumiaki Tanaka, Yutaka Nagare, Yu Tamura, Hayden Parker, Harumichi Tatekawa, Timothy Lafaele, Sione Teaupa, Michael Little, William Tupou, Gerhard Van Den Heever, Kenki Fukuoka, Akihito Yamada, Lomano Lava Lemeki, Hosea Saumaki, Robbie Robinson.