Rugby | ADDING THE EXTRAS

Last dance for Sunwolves complicates matters in 2020 Super Rugby campaign

by Rich Freeman

Lance Conrad wrote in “The Price of Nobility” that “only a fool would underestimate a man with nothing to lose.”

It is a mantra that perhaps should be taken up by the coaches of the 12 Super Rugby sides that take on the Sunwolves this year, beginning with the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday in Fukuoka.

For if ever there were a group of men with nothing to lose, it is the Sunwolves.

Last March, SANZAAR — the organization that runs rugby in the Southern Hemisphere — decided to ditch the Japan-based franchise.

SANZAAR said the problem was the JRFU’s inability to meet certain financial requirements.

The JRFU, meanwhile, said the fee demanded from it was unreasonable and “non-negotiable,” and as a result, according to SANZAAR, it opted to pursue other ways to develop the Japan national team.

But rather than making the parting immediate, the current broadcast deal meant the Sunwolves have been forced to play one more season.

The Brave Blossoms’ good run at last year’s Rugby World Cup saw some question whether the decision could be reversed. But SANZAAR refused to budge, leaving Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase the fruitless task of trying to cobble together a group of players not to mention a coaching team to take on the best Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have to offer.

Trying to recruit for a team that ceases to exist come May (though there is a possibility it will be part of the new Japanese domestic league) is hard enough, but Watase had an even bigger hurdle.

The decision by the JRFU to delay the start of the 2019-20 Top League season meant Japan’s domestic competition kicked off in January and runs in direct competition with Super Rugby.

Watase had hoped that the TL sides would reach an agreement whereby a small number of players would be released to the Sunwolves, who have done so much to help transform the way rugby is supported in Japan.

But only Robbie Deans’ Panasonic Wild Knights — who have also released a couple of high-profile players to the Japan sevens squad as it prepares for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — saw the good it would do of exposing some of their players to Super Rugby.

“It is part of the Panasonic philosophy to support the growth of Japanese rugby and inspire the next generation of players,” Deans told me.

The 15 other sides in the league dismissed the Sunwolves out of hand as they put self-interest and the hope of domestic glory first.

As such, the 2020 edition of the Sunwolves contains just five players — Kotaro Yatabe and Shunsuke Nunomaki of the Wild Knights, Jaba Bregvadze, Tom Rowe and Hencus van Wyk — who have represented the side in the past.

The remainder of the squad is all new, and unlike in the past, the vast majority have no experience of playing the high-paced Japanese style of rugby that made the Sunwolves such fan favorites, even though it has not been the most successful of teams.

England international Ben Te’o and players with previous Super Rugby experience such as Garth April, JJ Engelbrecht, Chris Eves, Ben Hyne, Jordan Jackson-Hope, Brendon O’Connor, Rudy Paige, Jake Schatz and Conraad van Vuuren, ensure there is some experience on the squad.

But for many this will be a season of firsts, none more so than for two of Japan’s brightest talents, scrumhalf Naoto Saito and center Shogo Nakano.

The two helped Waseda to the university title in January, have already played for Junior Japan and are expected to be knocking on the door of the international squad in the build-up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

But both have signed up to play for Suntory Sungoliath upon graduating in March, where they will struggle to get regular playing time with Japan halfback and club captain Yutaka Nagare currently wearing the No. 9 jersey and Wallabies star Semi Kerevi the No. 12 shirt.

Getting experience of rugby at the highest level and more importantly learning to operate outside the comfort zone that has cocooned them until now will be important learning steps, as it will be for the likes of Tenri University’s Siosaia Fifita and the Meji University pair of Ahn Chang-ho and Ryuga Hashimoto.

“I’m not sure university rugby is great preparation for tests,” Brave Blossoms coach Jamie Joseph said this week, adding that Japanese players need to play harder, tougher rugby and that Super Rugby had been “crucial for the development of international players.”

So what can we expect from this edition of the Sunwolves?

Limited time together, vastly different backgrounds in terms of upbringing and playing styles and brand new coaches means expect the unexpected.

One thing is for sure, though. This group of players has absolutely nothing to lose in 2020.

There is no “next season” or long-term goals.

For the younger Japanese players, it is a chance to show Joseph they have what it takes to be a Brave Blossom. For the more experienced players, it’s a chance to get a lucrative deal elsewhere or with a Japanese club.

If ever a team had “no excuses not to give it their all every single week” it is the Sunwolves.

Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.

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