Facing calls for the team to be cut from the competition, the Sunwolves and their Tokyo faithful showed once again Saturday that Super Rugby would be poorer for their axing.
Despite a heartbreaking 31-30 loss to the New South Wales Waratahs, the manner in which the Sunwolves played and the way the crowd got behind their team highlighted the potential that exists in Japan if certain internal problems can be resolved.
“I have to take time to acknowledge the fans who were absolutely outstanding. The way they supported the team was brilliant,” Sunwolves acting head coach Scott Hansen said.
Having put in a flat performance in the empty cauldron of Singapore National Stadium in Round 1, the Sunwolves were clearly inspired by their passionate pack of fans and nearly sealed a famous win at the death.
Hayden Parker’s drop goal attempt may have drifted wide but the mood surrounding Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground was a world away from the almost resigned mood in which many fans had arrived.
The Sunwolves like to play what they call “organized chaos” and while at times it can even confuse their own teammates, it is a brand of rugby that will always result in tries.
Gerhard van den Heever scored two sublime five-pointers — the second a carbon copy of Ayumu Goromaru’s famous try against the South Africa at Rugby World Cup 2015 — as the Sunwolves were chalk to last week’s cheese.
Having struggled big time in the scrums last week, when they conceded 16 penalties in a 45-10 loss to the Sharks, the Sunwolves won two tighthead scrums against a side containing five Wallabies and gave up seven fewer penalties.
“Awesome work from the scrum, it definitely set a platform for us and got us some much needed penalties,” said Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, who made 12 tackles in another impressive performance at No. 8.
One scrum win against the put-in in the first half, when the Sunwolves were close to their line, worked the crowd into a frenzy.
“It’s pretty unexplainable as a player,” said Warren-Vosayaco, who has been included in the Brave Blossoms’ extended World Cup training squad. “You can always credit the whole pack but the front three were just doing an unreal job.”
Veteran Japan internationals Hiroshi Yamashita and Luke Thompson showed there is no substitute for experience at tighthead prop and lock, respectively.
And while Thompson was unlucky to be sent to the bin following a succession of team infringements in the 63rd minute, his absence highlighted how far the team have improved with a proper game under their belts.
Despite being a man down and playing into a strong wind, it was actually the Sunwolves who finished the 10-minute period with a net profit of seven points thanks to van den Heever’s second try, helped in part by a crowd that sensed something special.
“I feel like we have probably one of the best crowds in the world. They are always there for us,” said Warren-Vosayaco.
A final sign of the ever-developing nature of the team came in the performance of the bench, which ensured it was the Sunwolves who finished the stronger after a penalty try gave the Waratahs a lead 31-23 with 18 minutes left.
“Everyone was keen to get on because we were disappointed with last week’s performance,” said Sunwolves and Japan lock Uwe Helu, who made a couple of thundering runs after coming off the bench in the 54th minute.
“The crowd just made you go bump when you hear them get into it. It really helped the boys and gave us more energy.”