SINGAPORE – The Sunwolves’ big loss to the Sharks on the opening weekend of this year’s Super Rugby competition has seen the honing of already sharp knives, with increased calls for the team to be cut from the competition.
But the team’s CEO Yuji Watase is hopeful that the side will not fade into extinction after 2020 when the tournament’s current broadcast rights deal concludes.
SANZAAR — the body that runs the Southern Hemisphere tournament — is set to meet in March to discuss Super Rugby’s format from 2021 onward, but Watase says he hopes a decision will not be made until later in the year, in part because he hopes the Sunwolves will have proved their worth by then.
“Obviously, it will be a tough decision for SANZAAR but we want to carry on,” he said in Singapore. “I think making a final decision in March is too soon as it is a tough call to make, the second half of the year would be better.”
Set up to bridge the gap between the Top League and international rugby and to develop local talent, there are many who feel the Sunwolves have lost the plot this season, with many of Japan’s top internationals and seasoned Super Rugby campaigners set to miss the opening six rounds of the competition due to World Cup preparations.
While the 23-man squad that suffered a 35-point drubbing in Saturday’s 45-10 loss contained 13 players who could feature for Japan later in the year, only six were born and bred in Japan.
“We don’t want to break careers, we want to make them,” Watase said when asked to address why there were not more local players in the side.
But he admitted it was a Catch-22 situation, because not giving emerging players such as Kosuke Horikoshi, Takuya Yamasawa and Yusuke Kajimura a chance to play the best players in the world was hindering their development and could hurt Japan at the 2023 World Cup.
“Those playing (Super Rugby) now are up for it,” he said. “What we hope is that the younger players will play for the Wolf Pack (in essence the national development squad) against some of the Super Rugby B teams in April and May.”
And with that experience behind them, he says some of Japan’s top recent graduates will play for the Sunwolves in 2020 alongside some marquee players, despite the clash that will exist with the Top League, which is set to run two competitions in one calendar.
Citing the pathway the Sunwolves can provide if things are allowed to operate normally — in a non-Rugby World Cup year — Watase said it was “imperative we do not lose momentum in 2020 in terms of a high-performance plan.”
“Most Tier 2 nations lose a year after a World Cup doing a review, as Japan did in 2016. Next year is an Olympic year and the Sunwolves are guaranteed a spot (in Super Rugby) so we need to make the most of it.”
“We need to talk with the Japan Rugby Football Union so we make the most of that year and make sure, moving forward, that there is more than just the Top League and the proposed (test match) World League for Japanese players.”
Off the field, the role of the Sunwolves is just as important, Watase said, noting that the team had recent meetings with the Melbourne Rebels and Canberra-based Brumbies to that effect.
“The future of rugby is in the Pan-Pacific, Oceania and Asia (regions) and Japan is key to expansion in Asia,” he said, with particular reference to TV viewing figures. “And remember, Japanese companies sponsor many of the teams in Australia and New Zealand.”
“We are not alone in thinking Super Rugby cannot survive without us. We provide commercial sustainability and a pathway to make players better.”