The Sunwolves head into their second season of Super Rugby with just 80 minutes of actual playing time behind them and three weeks together on the training paddock.
“It’s not ideal, but it is what it is,” new head coach Filo Tiatia has said on a number of occasions.
And that very much sums up Japan’s inclusion in the Southern Hemisphere competition.
A travel schedule that sees them fly close to 120,000 km and a fixture list that sees them play the New Zealand franchises and just four games in Tokyo, means once again, the Sunwolves are up against it.
But Tiatia is hopeful the lessons learned from last year, when he was assistant to Mark Hammett, can be put to good use.
“If you want to improve you need to learn from your mistakes and learn from your mentors,” the former All Black said. “We are only in our second year of Super Rugby. All the other teams are more experienced and we are still learning. But the players are really keen.”
Eagerness can only get you so far though, and last Saturday’s warm-up game against the Top League All-Stars in Kitakyushu showed the team still has a lot of work to do.
“It wasn’t a good game and we did not play like a Super Rugby side,” said scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka, who is back in Japan playing for the Sunwolves after winning 45 Super Rugby caps over the last four years for the Highlanders.
“In training, things are going well but there seemed to be a lack of readiness in the game and everyone was too quiet.”
Yet one reason the Sunwolves’ poor performance could be seen as a positive is 11 of Tiatia’s huge squad — which now numbers 53 with Tuesday’s addition of lock Kotaro Yatabe and center Ryohei Yamanaka — were lining up in the All-Stars’ Godzilla-adorned jersey.
While it was at times difficult to tell who was who with the All-Stars wearing squad numbers rather than the traditional 1 to 23, a number of players put in performances that suggest the Sunwolves have far more depth than last year.
“I thought the Sunwolves forwards in the All-Stars’ pack impressed and took the game to them,” said Japan national coach Jamie Joseph, who led the Top League side. “We put them under pressure and the intensity was exactly what the Sunwolves needed going into the Super Rugby competition.”
It was a view backed up by Ed Quirk, who will co-captain the Sunwolves this year along with Harumichi Tatekawa.
“Seeing those Sunwolves on the other side we always knew it was going to be a good competition,” he said. “They definitely stretched us a lot in defense. But it was the first game in a while for many of the squad and all in all I thought it was a good hit out.”
Like Tanaka, Willie Britz has also experienced Super Rugby, winning 27 caps for South Africa’s Lions and Cheetahs before heading to Japan.
“Super Rugby is the best competition in the world and being part of it again and playing with the best players in Japan is a real privilege,” he told Kyodo News.
“You always want to play the best in the world but we need to take it game by game and we need a good start.”
No easy thing, though, given that start comes against defending champions the Hurricanes this Saturday at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
Returning center Derek Carpenter is certainly under no illusions.
“The New Zealand teams are the best in the world,” he said. “But I’m excited for the season ahead. We’ve got a really good coaching staff and have players to back it up.
“Having the likes of Tanaka and (Kotaro) Matsushima back is great. Last year we didn’t really have any depth in the squad. This year we do and while the preparation has been short, it has been a lot better.”
Carpenter’s partnership with Tatekawa in midfield was one of the highlights of the Sunwolves’ debut season. And the Kiwi, who becomes eligible to play for Japan in April, is hoping the second season will be even better.
“You’re always mindful of that second-year syndrome and that’s something I don’t want — on a personal level or for the team.”