Rugby

Sunwolves building roster for 2020 season

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

As they enter their likely final season in Super Rugby, the Sunwolves revealed 15 players who will compete for the Japan-based team in Tokyo on Tuesday.

All but one on the initial squad is a foreign-born player, including Georgian hooker Jaba Bregvadze, who played for his native country at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The 32-year-old Bregvadze was on the Sunwolves in the last two years as well.

Australian No. 8 Jake Schatz, who has appeared in 92 Super Rugby matches, most of which were for the Brisbane Reds, and former England national team center and New Zealand-born Ben Te’o are also on the squad.

Twenty-two-year-old Waseda University scrumhalf Naoto Saito is the only Japanese, who made the initial team.

The Sunwolves, who were told by Super Rugby organizer SANZAAR in March that they would no long be a member of the league beyond the 2020 season, will kick off their upcoming campaign on Feb. 1 against the Melbourne Rebels at Level Five Stadium in Fukuoka.

Because of the Rugby World Cup, the start of the new season for the domestic Top League has been moved to January. It will continue through May. Plus, many of the players that competed at the World Cup are, as the Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase stated at a news conference, “exhausted both physically and mentally.”

Watase said that post-World Cup situations have made it tougher for the club to acquire players and suggested that the team will likely sign many young prospects in order to development them for the Japan national team for the 2023 World Cup.

The Sunwolves, who have posted an 8-53-1 record since they joined the league in 2016, will announce additional players at a later date, Watase said.

“For our national team to keep on challenging the next level of rugby, we need to develop the next generation of Japanese players and work hard together,” said Japan national team head coach Jamie Joseph, who led the Brave Blossoms to the quarterfinals at the World Cup this fall as their head coach and guided the Sunwolves in 2018, in a statement.

“Only then can we capitalize on all the hard work that has been done in the past four years. The challenge starts now.”

Sunwolves new head coach Naoya Okubo said: “I didn’t expect that rugby would excite the whole Japan. But that’s something that happened in the past. We need to take another first step toward the next World Cup and beyond. And the first step will be the Sunwolves.

“I want to ask our staff and players what we are supposed to do on a daily basis.”

The Sunwolves want to remain in Super Rugby, but they are reportedly required by league operators to pay a ¥1 billion re-entry fee each year. The team will play five of its home contests at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Stadium, with another match in Fukuoka, one in Osaka and another in Singapore in 2020.

The Sunwolves also announced that Keisuke Sawaki, who guided the Suntory Sungoliath to back-to-back Top League titles in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons as their head coach, will be the Super Rugby team’s coaching coordinator and Yoshikazu Tamura their scrum coach.