It is often said that rugby is not rocket science, and the Sunwolves’ famous win over the Chiefs on Saturday — regarded by many as one of the biggest upsets in the history of Super Rugby — is proof of that.
“Super Rugby is all about the speed and the turnover and the quality of ball you can produce,” Sunwolves interim head coach Scott Hansen said following his side’s 30-15 victory at FMG Stadium Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, their first ever win outside Asia.
“One side of the ball we are trying to slow down and the other we are trying to speed it up. The boys had a plan (Saturday) and they executed it really well.”
And the stats bear witness to that.
The pressure applied by the Sunwolves forced the two-time champions to turn the ball over on 24 occasions, while the Japanese franchise gave up the ball 14 times.
Of those turnovers conceded by the Chiefs, 14 came at tackle time as the Sunwolves dominated proceedings in the first half.
While the second half saw things even up in terms of possession and territory, the Sunwolves remained resilient in defense and the victory was nothing more than they deserved.
While there will always be naysayers regarding the current makeup of the Sunwolves, it should be noted that 10 of the starting XV are eligible to play for Japan at this year’s Rugby World Cup — including seven of the eight forwards, whose dominance laid the foundations for the win.
Veteran Brave Blossoms lock Luke Thompson led the way making 20 of his 22 tackles, while back-row forwards Hendrik Tui made 13 of 14 and Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco 12 of 13. Uwe Helu had a stormer in the loose winning five turnovers and putting in some powerful runs, one of which resulted in a try.
New Zealanders Michael Little, Phil Burleigh and Tom Rowe (the latter two off the bench) also contributed greatly both in attack and defense.
“We’ve got mixed cultures and everyone celebrates their own way,” co-captain Little said of his team and the joyous mood in the changing room after the game.
“It’s awesome to get a win in New Zealand. It’s probably the hardest place to tour and it’s been a long time coming.”
Little praised the belief his teammates had shown, adding “we fronted up physically and mentally.”
That mental side was tested early on with center Shane Gates stretchered off in the fifth minute with a nasty looking leg injury and scrumhalf Kaito Shigeno forced to leave the field 21 minutes later with what appeared to be a rib injury.
But with the backs making the most of the hard yards won by the forwards, the Sunwolves turned around leading 23-3 and then defended bravely to ensure there was no way back for the Chiefs.
“Our game plan is built around playing Sunwolves rugby and that is trying to move the ball and be creative with it,” Hansen said. “But I think a big growth in our game has been our defense. Great to attack, but we have better balance and consistency in our game.”
Gerhard van den Heever touched down for his side’s third try and his third five-pointer in a week, and Hansen’s comments about the South African-born wing could equally be applied to many of his teammates.
“At the moment he is enjoying his rugby,” Hansen said. “With ball in hand he is dynamic and elusive and he’s worked really hard on his fitness which has given him the ability to last longer in the game.”
“Just talking to him in the shed I said to him, ‘You’re like a 14-year-old running around.’ That’s how he should be enjoying his footy and contributing. But I will still challenge him to be better on Monday.”
Hansen paid tribute to all the players and coaches who have represented the Sunwolves in their short four-year history, saying the win was “something the franchise has been building toward for a long time.”
“There are a lot of people in the past that have done a lot of work to allow us to be where we are. We’re proud of our achievement and we want to share that with the Japanese people,” Hansen said.
One player watching the game with great interest was Japan captain Michael Leitch.
A former member of the Chiefs, Leitch is set to appear for the Sunwolves from around the sixth round following time spent training with Japan’s extended World Cup training squad and some time away from the training paddock.
“Awesome effort from the Sunwolves today and hopefully they can keep working on the back of that,” he told Asia Rugby after watching the game in Mongolia.
“It’s great for Asian rugby. The Sunwolves are key to developing rugby in Asia. If we keep the Sunwolves going in the long run, hopefully we can get players (from all over Asia) and progress together.”