The Sunwolves responded Monday to the reduction in the number of Super Rugby teams and their move to the Australian Conference, saying the reduced traveling and more favorable time zones will help the side both on and off the field.
“We will continue competing in one of the toughest competitions in the world of rugby, however, we will do so in a slightly better environment regarding the time difference and the long-distance travel,” Japan Rugby Football Union chairman Noriyuki Sakamoto said in a press release.
On Sunday, SANZAAR — the body that organizes rugby in the Southern Hemisphere — announced that from 2018, Super Rugby will be a 15-team competition with two South African sides and one Australian team cut from the competition.
It also announced that the Sunwolves will move from one of the Africa conferences to the Australian Conference, where they will play games on a home-and-away basis. They will play eight cross-conference matches against four of the five teams from each of the other two (New Zealand and South Africa) conferences (four at home and four away).
There was, however, as made public by New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew on Monday, a proviso that the Japanese franchise must lift its game or risk being axed in the future.
“Japan are on notice that they’ve got to perform at a higher level as time goes on. Their win against the Bulls over the weekend was very timely,” Tew was quoted as saying by the New Zealand Herald.
When asked for a response to Tew’s comments, Japan coach Jamie Joseph, who oversees the Sunwolves, admitted he had not heard what his former boss had said.
But the former Highlanders coach, who won the Super Rugby title in 2015, did say: “it’s interesting to know what success looks like. I coached a side (in 2013) with 11 All Blacks and we only won three games (in the season).”
However, like Sakamoto, Joseph said the reduction in travel — the Sunwolves are set to travel close to 120,000 km this season, twice as far as any other side — would “help out.”
The former All Black also pointed out that, unlike other teams, the Sunwolves not only lacked the depth and experience needed to do consistently well, but currently struggled to manage the workload of players who come into the squad straight from Top League duties with their company sides.
“But you saw at the weekend what happened when we had a handful of players coming back from a break. Voila, we won the game,” Joseph said.
The JRFU has already announced that the 2017-18 Top League season will end earlier to give the Sunwolves more time to prepare, and with another year under their belt, it is hoped they will also have a better grip on how to run things both on and off the field.
“As a team, the coaches and players at the Sunwolves focus on the opportunities that are presented on the field every week. As an organization we endeavor to focus on the opportunities that are presented off the field as well,” said head coach Filo Tiatia, who flew with his team to New Zealand to prepare for Friday’s game against the Crusaders just hours after Saturday’s win over the Bulls.
“The Sunwolves are honored and privileged to be part of the toughest rugby competition in the world, and the news today of our continued involvement in a 15-team format is great news for the players, coaches and organization alike.
“We have a mantra of ‘Rise as One’ and with the confidence that SANZAAR has put in us as a team and an organization, we will continue to strive for that goal.”