The winner of the Sunwolves’ Super Rugby clash with the Queensland Reds on Saturday could well be determined by which of the teams’ youngest players comes out on top.
Ben Gunter, who still holds the record as the Top League’s youngest ever player, makes his Super Rugby debut for the Sunwolves at the age of 21 knowing that a key part of his game will be to stop the Reds’ 20-year-old flyhalf Isaac Lucas.
“I never thought I would play Super Rugby, especially at the age of 21, so I couldn’t be more happy and proud,” Gunter said Friday after his team’s captain’s run at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
The back-row forward, who has spent the last three years playing for Panasonic Wild Knights and is part of Japan’s extended Rugby World Cup squad, said the physicality he packs into his 195-cm, 118-kg frame will be crucial if the Sunwolves are to pick up a second win of the season.
Gunter went to high school in Brisbane and knows well many of the players he will face on the Reds. He said stopping Lucas will be crucial.
“We will look to put pressure on him, force him to make decisions he does not want to make and make sure he has no freedom,” he said.
“I want to help the team stop the Reds’ momentum when they have the ball and when we have it put in some strong carries and bring momentum to our attack,” he added.
That defensive effort will see Gunter line up with Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, who leads the league with 49 tackles in four games, and Dan Pryor in an abrasive, mobile back row that will be augmented at some stage by Amanaki Lelei Mafi.
“We know they will inject good power and we are looking for them to dominate the gain line and keep the ball alive,” said interim head coach Scott Hansen.
If Mafi is called off the bench to make his Sunwolves debut, despite an ongoing legal case, Hansen expects to see a player who “is going to offer great energy and enthusiasm. We want him to go out and enjoy his game and we know that is an explosive powerful game… he has been really excited to be in the squad this week.”
The momentum in attack will also be helped by the return of Hosea Saumaki, who scored seven tries in eight games last year before suffering a serious knee injury.
The Daito Bunka University graduate lines up on the left wing with Gerhard van den Heever, who leads the league in meters gained, on the right.
“I want to get my hands on the ball as often as possible and make an impact. It feels very special scoring a try at Chichibunomiya as you really feel all the fans cheering together,” said van den Heever.
Last year, the Sunwolves beat the Queenslanders 63-28 in Tokyo and they are hoping a similar display in front of their adoring fans will prove they belong in the competition, despite whispers they are facing the cut.
“The best way for us to show we belong is by our performance on the field and by showing we are good for the game in general,” Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase told Kyodo News.
“We are showing some real quality in our rugby this year, commercially we are working well and our crowds are amazing.”
Reds coach Brad Thorn, however, did not win all the silverware he accumulated in a storied career by worrying how the opposition was faring.
The former All Black, who also won eight caps for Australia in rugby league, won just about every major competition as a player in both the 15 and 13-man game, and he is convinced Lucas, who played fullback last week, is the man to help turn their still winless season around.
“Isaac has played some quality rugby in his three appearances this season. He’s played at 10 for most of his junior footy, so this is nothing new for him.”
Bookmakers in Australia have installed the Sunwolves as favorites for Saturday’s game. The home fans that are expected to pack the stadium will be hoping they are proved right.