An announcement was made last week that the Tokyo-based Sunwolves would no longer participate in the southern hemisphere’s premier club competition from 2021 onwards after a tumultuous opening three seasons of their existence.
The decision comes as an untimely one, as it reflects regression in Asian rugby at a time when Japan prepares to become the first country in the continent to host the sport’s biggest event.
“It is clear that this is going to cause quite a lot of damage,” Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase told AFP following his side’s 37-24 defeat against the Lions last weekend.
“It’s obvious we had a responsibility to expand rugby in Asia. We have tried to do that and to an extent I believe we achieved that aim — but in pure economic terms, the reality is not that simple.”
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The Sunwolves were added to Super Rugby in 2016 as part of an ill-fated move to expand SANZAAR’s global audience and tap into the Asian market, but the southern hemisphere’s governing body was unprepared to bankroll the franchise after the Japan Rugby Football Union withdrew financial support.
Another reason for the Sunwolves’ addition to the competition was so they could provide Japan with a de facto national side that could develop and nurture Japanese talent in one of the world’s premier club tournaments in a bid to prolong and capitalise on the success sustained by the country’s test side at the 2015 World Cup.
Initially, the Sunwolves started out with a plethora of Japanese players, although many star players – such as Ayumu Goromaru and Michael Leitch – opted to play for other franchises in the competition, leaving the Sunwolves to get hammered on a regular basis throughout their opening two seasons.
Other players have stayed in the domestic Top League, where they and a raft of international stars, like Dan Carter, are paid handsomely by corporations such as Kobe Steel and Panasonic, leaving the financially-embattled Sunwolves to scrap for Super Rugby rejects.
This has led to more and more offshore players signing for the Sunwolves as seasons have gone by, a point of which has been a source of criticism in recent times.
Players from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga, Georgia and South Korea have all plied their trade for the club since last year, and while the franchise have become more competitive in that timeframe, critics have argued that it defeats the purpose of having the Sunwolves in the first place, which is to help grow Asian rugby.
The Sunwolves have tried to do that by splitting home games between Tokyo – where they often sell out Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium – and Singapore, where a sea of vacant red and white seats are frequently seen at the Singapore Sports Hub.
The severe lack of interest shown in games held in Singapore is represents that challenges that comes with trying to grow rugby outside of Japan in football-mad Asia.
Nevertheless, this year’s World Cup promises to be successful in terms of ticket sales and a growing interest of the sport inside Japan.
“We feel like this will be the most impactful Rugby World Cup we’ve ever had,” tournament director Alan Gilpin told AFP.
With 4.5 million ticket applications, 70 percent of those coming from Japan, it’s difficult to argue Gilpin’s notion.
“There are a couple of hundred thousand kids playing rugby now in Japan that weren’t there a year ago, let alone five years ago. We are somewhere new, the opportunity is to leave a bigger legacy in this World Cup than we’ve ever done before.”
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