More Sports / Rugby

Japan eyes World Cup heroes for Super Rugby’s Sunwolves

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Japan’s new Super Rugby franchise is hoping to ride the wave of the national team’s World Cup success when it enters the competition next season.

The new team, which was officially named the Sunwolves on Monday, is set to open its debut Super Rugby campaign in Tokyo against the Lions of Johannesburg on Feb. 27, despite having yet to sign a head coach or a full complement of players.

Reports last month suggested that Super Rugby organizer SANZAR was ready to pull the plug on the franchise if it could not field a competitive team.

The Sunwolves’ participation was confirmed last Monday with the release of the draw for the 18-team competition, but questions still remain over the make-up of the squad with officials saying Monday that the lineup will not be disclosed until after a board meeting of the Japan Rugby Football Union later this month.

But Sunwolves CEO Yuichi Ueno also insisted that signing Japan’s World Cup heroes — who have shocked the world with wins over South Africa and Samoa and are still in contention for a quarterfinal place — is a matter of “top priority.”

“The biggest problem we have faced in putting the team together is that SANZAR have demanded that the overall value of Super Rugby goes up, and for that to happen it has to be competitive,” said Ueno.

“If the Japanese team loses lots of games by big margins, Super Rugby loses prestige. So we have been told we have to sign good players.

“The national team has now beaten South Africa and Samoa and is more competitive than ever before. So we are very grateful to them for that.”

Ueno also insisted that the Sunwolves’ participation in the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club tournament will benefit Japan’s national team.

“The basic premise of this team is to strengthen the national team,” he said. “So we will work in cooperation with the JRFU when putting the team together. We want to use the national team players as the base for this team in order to strengthen the national team.”

The Sunwolves name was chosen after members of the public were invited to send suggestions, with team chiefs receiving 3,320 submissions from Japan and abroad.

“It gives us great pleasure to welcome the Sunwolves to Super Rugby as they prepare to join our expanded competition alongside the Kings from South Africa and an Argentine team that will be revealed shortly,” Super Rugby interim CEO Brendan Morris said in a statement.

“It’s an exciting time for the sport and also for fans throughout Japan who can start getting behind the brand, identity and ethos of their Super Rugby team.”

The expanded Super Rugby format sees 18 teams playing in four conferences, which are divided into two groups.

The Sunwolves have been drawn in a conference with the Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers — all South African teams.

As well as playing five home games at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground, the Sunwolves will also play three “home” matches in Singapore.