SINGAPORE – The Sunwolves kick off their 2019 Super Rugby season on Saturday in the heat and humidity of Singapore against the Durban-based Sharks, and co-captain Michael Little would have it no other way.
“South African guys are pretty big in general so what better place to play than Singapore where it’s hot and humid,” the Sunwolves’ star performer in 2018 said Friday at the island state’s National Stadium.
Little, who recently returned from getting married in New Zealand, starts on the bench Saturday but as assistant coach Scott Hansen pointed out, playing Super Rugby is all about the group effort.
“We talk every game about the importance of what we call our impacts,” Hansen said of the eight-man bench. “They have a defined role that they bring to the Sunwolves and tomorrow evening with the conditions we look forward to their energy coming on and helping our boys get through the 80 minutes.”
Those “boys” may be a more cosmopolitan bunch than most Super Rugby sides but as the side’s other co-captain Craig Millar told media following his team’s final training run, “We all love playing in Japan and want to contribute any way we can to help Japan leading into the World Cup.”
With the 2019 Rugby World Cup just seven months away, the Sunwolves are working closely with the Brave Blossoms to ensure Japan’s best players are in peak condition come September and October.
As a result, a number of big names have remained in Japan for an extended RWC squad training camp along with Sunwolves head coach Tony Brown, who doubles up as assistant coach with the Brave Blossoms.
But Hansen believes he has a side more than capable of matching the Sharks, against whom they have lost all three previous encounters.
“We’ve picked our best possible side based on the pre-season efforts and are very excited to take on the Sharks,” he said.
This year the preseason included a 10-day camp in Melbourne, and Millar said the time spent in Australia — which included a training game against the Rebels — had put the team in a far better position than previous campaigns.
It had also allowed them to escape the Japanese winter and get used to conditions the Sharks have experienced in their own preparations back in Durban.
Friday’s captain’s run saw Millar and flyhalf Hayden Parker take charge and the team looked impressive, moving the ball at pace and barely dropping a pass despite the slippery ball.
The back-row of Ed Quirk, Hendrik Tui and Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco looked mobile and will be key to stopping the Sharks in their tracks.
“They’re obviously a very good side with a very physical forward pack and are well drilled, so we need to work hard and stop their momentum both in the loose and at set-piece time,” Millar said of the South Africans.
“They are going to be challenging us so we are on the back foot. So then it makes our backs’ job a lot harder. We’ve talked about doing what we can to disrupt the ball at source and fronting up to them physically. And if you get that part of the game right, rugby can be a pretty simple game.”
The Sunwolves beat the Pretoria-based Bulls 42-37 last time they were this close to the equator and another win would go a long way to proving the Japanese franchise deserves to remain in the competition, amid rumors they could be cut following the 2020 season.
The Sharks are certainly aware they are in for a tough evening, both in terms of the weather and opposition.
“The humidity is always a factor here, so we are going to have to look after the ball,” said coach Robert du Preez. “And that means set pieces are absolutely vital for us and kicking will play a big role.”
Du Preez said the Sharks would treat the Sunwolves with a lot of respect and that his side would need to be aware of the Tokyo-based side doing the unexpected. But with a number of his players having spent time in the Top League, he believed their inside knowledge would help them win out in the end.
“They obviously play an expansive brand of rugby,” said Sharks captain Loius Schreuder, who spent the 2016-17 season with Kubota Spears. “They play fast and we have to be mindful of that. But our focus will be ourselves and on what we want to do. It’s the first game and we want to start well.”