Rugby

Sunwolves prepare to cope with stifling heat, Stormers in Hong Kong

by Rich Freeman

Kyodo

The Sunwolves’ game against the Stormers at Mong Kok Stadium on Saturday will be something akin to survival of the fittest if Friday’s conditions are anything to go by.

The two teams trained early in the day at the match venue — as Hong Kong prepares to host its first-ever Super Rugby game — with the temperature already in the high 30s C and humidity close to 80 percent.

And with the game to kick off at 1:15 p.m. local time, things are likely to get even hotter with both sides desperate for a win.

The Sunwolves (1-9) are looking for their first winning streak in franchise history and their first victory away from Tokyo.

The Cape Town-based Stormers, meanwhile, need a victory to have a chance of making the playoffs, having won five and lost seven.

“The heat will be a real factor,” Sunwolves coach Jamie Joseph said. “It will be a real leveler and the team that uses the ball the right way in these conditions can apply pressure.”

His Stormers counterpart, Robbie Fleck, agreed. Fleck hoped the extra days his team have been in Hong Kong — they flew in on Monday while the Sunwolves arrived Wednesday — will hold them in good stead.

“We have been training on (an artificial) pitch and the players had to put ice in their boots. We’ve been cooked from above and below,” the former Springbok said.

History shows the heat has, to a degree, favored the Sunwolves in past fixtures between the two sides.

The two sides have met four times before with the Stormers picking up big wins in Cape Town — 46-19 in 2016 and 52-15 in 2017.

However, things have been much tighter in Singapore with the 2016 game finishing in a 17-17 draw and the game last year ending in a 44-31 win for the South Africans.

“We will need to be tactically smart, and the bench will play a big role,” said Fleck, who has gone for six forwards among his eight replacements, among them squad captain Siya Kolisi, one of South African rugby’s standout players.

“It’s important that we control the tempo and not let the Sunwolves dictate things,” Fleck said.

The Sunwolves’ performance last week against the Reds showed the players have finally understood how to balance the kicking and passing game, and they will be looking to move the big South Africans around as much as possible.

Hayden Parker will once again be a key figure at flyhalf, though he will need the likes of Shota Horie, Michael Leitch and Grant Hattingh to reproduce their heroics of last week, when they eliminated the Reds forward threat.

When asked if the 63-28 victory over the Queenslanders meant the clever money was on the Sunwolves for Saturday’s game, Joseph responded, “We are definitely the underdogs. One win does not make us favorites against a team that has won a lot more than us.”

Saturday’s game marks Joseph’s last in charge before he takes a break to concentrate on the national side’s preparations for the June tests against Italy and Georgia.

Tony Brown will act as head coach for the game against the Rebels on May 25 in Melbourne, while Scott Hansen will be in charge for one against the Brumbies in Canberra on June 3.