The Sunwolves head into their final home game of the 2019 Super Rugby season on Saturday hoping to salvage a disappointing year.
The Japanese franchise has yet to win at home — be it Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground or Singapore National Stadium — and comes into the game against the Australian Conference-leading Brumbies on the back of some of some very poor performances.
The team has maintained that the disappointment of losing its Super Rugby status from 2020, and the constant changes to the starting lineup as the result of national team call-ups and injury has not been factor behind its 2-11 season to date.
Unenforced errors and poor discipline have certainly played a role but factors that the players have no control over have also contributed greatly and the news that head coach Tony Brown is returning to New Zealand next year to work with the Highlanders highlights just how tough things have become.
The Sunwolves come into the game 22 points behind the Brumbies, who beat them 33-0 three weeks ago. And last week’s 52-7 defeat at the hands of the Melbourne Rebels ensured they are the only team with no mathematical chance of making the playoffs.
“We understand we have a lot to learn from the last time we played (the Brumbies),” said Scott Hansen, who will act as head coach for the remaining three games with Brown back on national team duty.
With a number of players being released so they can join the Brave Blossoms training camp in June, Hansen has made seven changes and two positional switches from the team that started last week.
Five of those changes come in the pack, as the Sunwolves look for a hugely improved performance in the set piece, against a side that has used its powerful set of forwards to lay the foundations for the seven wins that see them atop the Aussie group.
“Coming into this week (we have focused on) fixing our set piece. Our scrum wasn’t good enough last weekend and we have been working hard to rectify that,” said captain and openside flanker Dan Pryor, one of the three forwards to keep his place on the side.
“The Brumbies like to maul and like to be physical up front so we have trained to make sure we have corrected the errors from last weekend.”
The Sunwolves will also have to contain the Brumbies’ dangerous midfield with Tevita Kuridrani coming into the game on the back of a hat trick of tries against the Bulls and Irae Simone and Christian Lealiifano both in sparkling form.
“We will look to get the ball in the hands of Tevita and Christian and Irae had his best game last week,” said Brumbies coach Dan McKellar.
“Our backline has done really well recently especially in their option taking. We were predictable early on in the season but have changed things around.”
Last time the teams met in Tokyo, in February 2018, the Sunwolves defense held firm for most of the game as they narrowly lost 32-25.
“When we played them last year we took their space away and they couldn’t get their game going. We need fast line speed to shut them down,” said Sunwolves replacement back Timothy Lafaele, who has spent the last six months recovering from a shoulder injury.
Lafaele and Yuya Odo will become the 52nd and 53rd players to be used this season by the Sunwolves should they take the field from the bench. The Brumbies by comparison have used 37.
That difference in selection policy is reflected in the standings and is one reason the Brumbies are heavy favorites to win Saturday.
But Pryor and his team are hoping they can throw the Australian Conference wide open and sign off from Chichibunomiya in style.
“It’s our last game in Tokyo for the fans that show up every game so the boys want to put on a performance the fans can be happy with and come away with a win,” he said.