BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA – The history books will show that the Sunwolves fell to their third loss of the 2017 Super Rugby season on Saturday night. But the 38-31 defeat to the Cheetahs highlighted just what Filo Tiatia’s team is capable of.
It also showed that talk of the Sunwolves possibly being cut from the competition as SANZAAR looks to rejig the format of the tournament is unjustified.
As captain Ed Quirk said after the game, however, “We know we need to keep improving every week.”
To put things into perspective, in the corresponding fixture last year the Sunwolves were hammered 92-17.
“I am disappointed but happy,” said Quirk. “It was outstanding to come out with that effort.”
Tiatia has said his team has learned from last season and with the players becoming more accustomed to one another after their short pre-season, the performances are starting to come together, despite so many of the players being new to Super Rugby.
“We had another five new caps today, which makes it 26 so far this season, which is great for Japanese rugby,” said Quirk, whose side picked up its first bonus point of the season by virtue of losing by seven or less.
Kenki Fukuoka grabbed a brace of tries and Shota Emi and Hayden Cripps also crossed the chalk as the Sunwolves matched the hosts try-for-try.
In the end, the only difference between the sides was the inexperience of the visitors, and in particular the front five, of whom three were making their debut, as the Cheetahs made the most of their superiority up front to score three tries from set pieces and allow Fred Zeilinga a number of shots at goal.
“I know Japanese players aren’t the biggest players in the world but they have the biggest hearts,” said Sunwolves lock Liaki Moli, who was named man of the match.
Both sides came into the game suffering from extensive injury lists, but they put that aside to put on an entertaining spectacle.
The game got off to a sensational start for the visitors with Emi crossing with just 30 seconds on the clock following some great work from Fukuoka at the kickoff and a powerful run from Shuhei Matsuhashi.
With William Tupou putting in some big hits in defense, the Sunwolves dominated the early exchanges until the pack’s rawness was exploited by Torsten van Jaarsveld, with the Cheetahs captain scoring from an all too easy pick-and-go.
Cripps responded for the Sunwolves when he finished off some good work from Moli and Willie Britz, who both seemed to cover every inch of the field, before Teboho Mohoje went over straight from a line-out in the 37th minute.
Both kickers were in fine form — with Zeilinga banging over two conversions and two penalty goals and Cripps two conversions and a penalty — as the Cheetahs went into the break leading 20-17.
Unlike the first half, the Sunwolves started the second poorly, making a mess of the kickoff and allowing Zeilinga to stretch the lead with his third penalty of the game.
Clinton Swart then found a hole in the Sunwolves defense to go over as the Cheetahs went 30-17 up with 53 minutes gone, although the replays seemed to indicate that referee Rasta Rasivhenge’s unusual positioning had prevented Cripps from making a tackle.
With the game being played at altitude, the general feeling was that this was the time the floodgates would open.
But the Sunwolves hit back with Fukuoka going over twice in seven minutes, the second from a well worked line-out and run by Moli.
Despite Tiatia emptying the bench and bringing on the more experienced Masataka Mikami and Takuma Asahara at prop, there was still the odd crack up front and when Asahara was sent to the sin bin in the 65th minute, the Cheetahs made the most of their numerical advantage to put Rayno Benjamin over in the corner.
Zeilinga’s fourth penalty in the 75th minute meant the visitors needed a converted try to draw level, and despite finishing strongly, it was a score too far for Quirk and his team.
“Credit to the Cheetahs, they pushed both of us to our limits,” said the Sunwolves captain. “It was a harsh loss but a huge stepping stone.”