A few of Japan’s Rugby World Cup stars, including Akihito Yamada, Shota Horie and Hitoshi Ono, will headline the Sunwolves squad that will compete in Super Rugby next spring, team organizers revealed on Monday.
The organizers also introduced Mark Hammett, a former All Blacks player, as the team’s inaugural head coach.
A total of 10 players on the 34-man list that was announced Monday were on the Japanese national team squad that played in this fall’s Rugby World Cup in England.
The Sunwolves also feature 13 non-Japanese players, including Samoan standoff Tusi Pisi, who plays for the Suntory Sungoliath of Japan’s Top League.
Hammett had 29 caps and played for New Zealand in the 1999 and 2003 World Cups. The 43-year-old was the head coach for the Hurricanes, a New Zealand-based Super Rugby team, between 2011 and 2014.
Hammett said his contract with the Sunwolves lasts for six months. (He will also continue on as an assistant for the Tasman Makos next year.) The sides will discuss an extension near the end of the contract.
Hammett said he was not involved in the selection of the 34 players, but hinted he’d add more players to the squad later. The Christchurch native said the team would try to capitalize on its speed, one of Japan’s strengths, but has room to get better physically.
Hammett said that he wants to learn about the players and their traits in order to build a foundation for the future, adding that it’s “critical” to work closely with the Japan national team.
“I want to create a team and a culture where people want to belong — coaches, management and players,” Hammett said. “I want to create work that’s enjoyable doing. Hard work but work (that’s) enjoyable. And I want to create and develop leaders that people want to follow. And if we can do that, ultimately we will build a good culture.”
The Sunwolves are one of three new additions to Super Rugby, which will feature 18 teams for the upcoming season. New squads from Argentina and South Africa will also begin play in 2016.
The Japanese team will make its debut in a Feb. 27 game against the Lions, of South Africa, at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.
Each club will play 15 games during the season, which continues until mid-July, with the top eight advancing to the playoffs. The Sunwolves will play five contests in Japan, all at Prince Chichibu.
“While rugby’’ getting a lot of attention, now is the time for us to do our best,” a speedster wing player Yamada said. “If we make another history (in the Super Rugby), we are going to get even more spotlight.”