1. Ill-discipline or ill-officiating?
As Sunwolves head coach Tony Brown pointed out in his post-match press conference, four of the Lions’ six tries ultimately resulted from infringements from the home side. The South Africans made use of their physical advantage as they exploited their dominance at the set-piece to overpower the Sunwolves.
Sunwolves were penalized 12 times against Lions by referee Damon Murphy, with the guests conceding just six penalties. The Japan franchise has now conceded at least double the number of penalties than their opponents in each of their last three matches. There comes a time when you question whether it’s a simply a case of ill-discipline or if they are being shafted by the incompetency of officiating in the competition.
2. Mafi back with a bang
Amanaki Mafi made another appearance off the bench for the Sunwolves in Singapore, following on from his debut against the Reds last weekend. While the former Rebels no.8 is not yet at full match fitness after joining up with the squad a couple of weeks ago, there are signs that Mafi is rekindling the form that saw him as the first name on the teamsheet in Melbourne.
Mafi showed terrific strength and power to force his way through three defenders from the base of the scrum that paved the way for former NTT Comm teammate Warren Rahboni-Vosayaco’s first try. The metres that Mafi can make after the point of contact are invaluable for the Sunwolves, even more so that he made more metres (46m) than both Sunwolves’ starting flankers combined (21m). The 29-year-old was Sunwolves’ main outlet in the second half, demonstrated nonetheless by his nine carries in his 33 minutes on pitch – more than any other Sunwolves forward in the match.
3. Mission Singapore a failure
There were once again sparse crowds in Singapore, highlighted by the plethora of empty red and white seats captured by the television cameras. The home crowd did generate a decent amount of noise, but with the stadium at under 10% capacity, neither fans nor players can enjoy playing in an empty bowl.
Given the little interest in the Sunwolves and Singapore, which can in part be blamed on the little marketing effort by Sunwolves in the region, there can be surely be no logical reason why matches should be held at Singapore National Stadium in Sunwolves’ final Super Rugby season in 2020.
4. Sunwolves need to be ruthlesss
Sunwolves were superior to the Lions in terms of metres gained, carries, clean breaks and significantly offloads (18-4), which shows that they are not being completely outperformed in Super Rugby this season compared to previous campaigns.
Despite bossing the key attacking statistics, they were unable to come out with the elusive victory in Singapore that they craved. Instead, Lions took full advantage of almost every opportunity they had inside the opposition 22, flicking the switch and mobilizing their forward pack to put the game to bed. If Sunwolves really want to covert these improved performances into results, then they need to be ruthless inside the opposition 22 and make their pressure pay.
1. Penalty count hurts Sunwolves
Sunwolves will have felt hard done by the officiating against Blues, but when you concede 14 penalties to the opponents’ three, it cannot simply be the man in the middle that is to blame. Sunwolves conceded eight penalties in the second half (to the Blues’ 0), which saw both Semisi Masirewa and replacement Nick Vella sent to the bin and ultimately cost them the game in Auckland.
While their rush defence has worked wonders in Super Rugby this season, most notably in their victory against the Chiefs in Round 3, they need to ensure that they do not stray offside and concede cheap penalties. There was no clear leader on the pitch during the second half to convey the referee’s words of warning to players in both English and Japanese. It’s times like these that the likes of Michael Leitch are sorely missed for the Sunwolves.
2. Booth bursts offer promise
Jamie Booth did not disappoint on his first start for the Sunwolves. He certainly caught the eye with his breaks from the base of the breakdown, gaining valuable metres and improving Sunwolves’ field position on each occasion.
While Kaito Shigeno and Keisuke Uchida have put in admirable displays for the Japan franchise this season, Booth’s ability to run with ball in hand from the ruck will add a different dimension to Sunwolves’ game and another option for Scott Hansen and Tony Brown, given that this is not something that either Shigeno or Uchida have shown much of this season.
3. No Parker, no problem!
Eyebrows were raised when Scott Hansen announced the team for the Blues game, especially around the no.10 jersey and the decision to hand inexperienced utility back Rikiya Matsuda a start at stand-off over Hayden Parker.
Matsuda hardly put a foot wrong though in what was his first ever Super Rugby start, slotting all four of his place kicks in addition to scoring Sunwolves’ first try of the game after showing great support to be an inside option for Warren Rahboni-Vosayaco on the left wing.
If the worst does ever happen and Hayden Parker picks up an injury, Hansen and Tony Brown have a reliable goal-kicker and stand-off waiting in the wings.
4. Missing: Godzilla
We were sure that after being left out of the team to face Chiefs that Hosea Saumaki would make his first appearance of the season last weekend against Blues, having travelled and trained with the squad. Alas, this was not the case and the curious case of Saumaki continues.
There must be something happening behind the scenes preventing the ‘Tongan Godzilla’ from getting game time in Super Rugby this term. His Japan future and a place at RWC 2019 are still up the air with just six months to go until the tournament. With players from Japan’s Rugby World Cup training squad being deployed in the Sunwolves team over the next couple of years, we could receive an indication on Saumaki’s future later this month.
Stand-off Rikiya Matsuda has been handed his first ever Super Rugby start as Sunwolves head coach Scott Hansen has announced five changes from the team that defeated Chiefs last weekend for their historic first away victory in Super Rugby.
Sunwolves fill fancy their chances of making it back-to-back away wins in New Zealand, with the Blues winless this season in Super Rugby and yet to hit 25 points or more in a game in 2019. The Auckland outfit have lost eight of their last nine home games, which will give great hope to the Sunwolves in securing their second win of the season.
Youngster Matsuda, who plies his Top League rugby with Panasonic Wild Knights, replaces reliable goal-kicker Hayden Parker, who drops to the bench after starting all three matches to date this term. Parker’s absence may hit the Sunwolves hard with the stand-off boasting a 100% success-rate from the tee this season, slotting all 14 of his place kicks.
Matsuda is not the only change at half-back, with Kaito Shigeno’s rib injury he picked up against Chiefs keeping him out of this weekend’s game. In his place starts Jamie Booth, who starts from the off in a Sunwolves jersey for the first time.
It’s all change in the second row as Tome Rowe and James Moore replace Luke Thompson and Uwe Helu. 37-year-old Thomspon has been rested by Hansen after a couple of tireless shifts in recent weeks, which has seen him win the most tackles among all players in this season’s Super Rugby.
Both the front row of Pauliasi Manu, Atsushi Sakate and Hiroshi Yamashita and back row of Hendrik Tui, Shuhei Matsuhashi and Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco retain their places in the starting XV as Sunwolves look to secure unimaginable back-to-back wins in New Zealand.
The final change comes in the backs as Semisi Masirewa comes into the side in place of Shane Gates, who suffered a leg fracture against Chiefs and looks to be sidelined for the rest of the campaign
Masirewa comes into the team at full-back, meaning Jason Emery, who started at no.15 against Chiefs, slots in at outside centre alongside Michael Little.
Gerhard van den Heever again starts on the right wing as he looks to continue his sensational form that his seen him score three tries in as many games this season and make more metres than any other player in Super Rugby 2019 (326m, at least 101m more than any other player).
Sunwolves fans will have fond memories of facing Blues in Super Rugby from when they recorded their highest ever Super Rugby victory to date back in July 2017, running in eight tries against the New Zealand outfit in a scorching afternoon in Tokyo.
Shuhei Matsuhashi is the only survivor from the team that day who also starts this weekend against the Blues in Auckland, highlighting the Sunwolves’ high turnover of players in the past two seasons.
The Japanese franchise were defeated 24-10 against the Blues last season, despite leading 10-3 at the interval.
PREDICTION: Blues 18-27 Sunwolves
Delight for the Sunwolves as they pile on more misery on the Blues. Parker to come off the bench in the second half to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Shuhei Matsuhashi has been named in the starting XV of a Sunwolves squad for the first time in 18 months, as Scott Hansen opts to select him at openside flanker for the Chiefs match. The decision follows Ed Quirk’s injury in the dying embers of last weekend’s agonising defeat to the Waratahs, who has since been diagnosed with medial collateral ligament damage in his right knee and expected to miss multiple rounds of the competition.
Ricoh forward Matsuhashi is one of six changes that Hansen has made from last weekend’s defeat in Tokyo, with Japan speedster Jamie Henry also coming into the team for his first appearance of the Super Rugby season. Henry will be no stranger to facing New Zealand opposition having been born and raised in Auckland, along with also scoring a try against the All Blacks in Yokohama four months ago.
With Henry and Gerhard van den Heever on the wings, Sunwolves will again aim to move the ball away quick from the breakdown with scrum half Kaito Shigeno key to their gameplan against the Chiefs. Former Hurricanes scrum-half Jamie Booth is poised to make his Sunwolves debut off the bench, replacing Shigeno.
Michael Little, who made it into last season’s Super Rugby team of the season, is also handed his first start of the season. He comes into the side at the expense of Ryoto Nakamura, who made the crucial interception leading to Sunwolves’ first try last weekend, but has not travelled with the squad to New Zealand for the next two rounds of the competition.
There are two changes in the front row, with experienced Super Rugby prop Pauliasi Manu and Atsushi Sakate replacing Craig Millar and Jaba Bregvadze respectively, with Millar now ruled out for 3-4 months after dislocating a bone in his left foot. Uwe Helu is preferred in the second row over Tom Rowe, who drops to the bench.
In the Chiefs camp, Japan international Ataata Moeakiola has dropped to the bench to face the Sunwolves after scoring his first Super Rugby try last weekend in his side’s somewhat surprise defeat to the Brumbies. Brodie Retallick meanwhile has been named as a replacement after playing the full 80 minutes last weekend.
This will be the third meeting between the two teams, with Chiefs winning both encounters to date.
Sunwolves were narrowly defeated 27-20 in Hamilton back in 2017 when fielding a weakened side. Chiefs then put nine tries on Sunwolves in March last year as they put the Wolves to the sword in Tokyo.
1. Sunwolves improved scrum
Sunwolves simply had to change something in the pack after they were overpowered in the scrum in the opening weekend. And change they did, with Hiroshi Yamashita coming in at tighthead prop. Not only did they win all of their scrums, including two within the opening four minutes that pumped up the Tokyo crowd, they also won a scrum against the head inside their own 22.
The line-out still needs work though. Replacement Atsushi Skate’s throw on the hour mark ultimately led to Waratahs’ final and decisive try.
2. Almost 100% Parker
Hayden Parker maintained his 100% kicking record from the tee this season with 15 points from the boot against Waratahs. He kept the scoreboard ticking over to keep Sunwolves in the game.
It could have been even better for Parker had he slotted a drop-goal attempt in the 79th minute. With just 80 seconds left on the clock, Parker found himself in the pocket 20 metres in front of the posts but sliced his attempt off his left boot agonisingly wide of the left-hand post.
3. Van den Heever flying
Yamaha utility back Gerhard van den Heever didn’t enjoy the best of luck with Sunwolves last campaign as he was limited to just 77 minutes all season due to injury.
Usually deployed at full-back, Scott Hansen opted to start the South African on the wing against Waratahs. And that decision reaped dividends, with Van Den Heever the only player to make more than 100 metres in the match (140m), making also a team-high ten carries and six defenders beaten. His second try of the match from the set piece was reminiscent of the Brave Blossoms against South Africa, with Van Den Heever receiving the inside ball from the centre to dart through the opposition defence.
4. Wolves unable to maul Folau
Israel Folau again wreaked havoc against the Sunwolves with his two tries. He has a fond spot for facing the Japanese franchise after also notching a double of tries in his previous encounter against them.
It is no secret that Folau can blow hot or cold for club and country, but he was certainly firing on all cylinders on Saturday, much to the dismay of those in the Sunwolves camp. The 29-year-old beat more defenders (7) and made more offloads (5) than any other player on the field, as he made the most metres among all Waratahs
5. Home, sweet home
Sunwolves have proved time and time again that they perform with the enthusiastic home support of Tokyo behind them. Following last weekend’s dismal showing against Sharks that saw Singapore National Stadium at less than 10% capacity, they needed a full house to cheer them on to mark the start of Rugby World Cup year in Japan.
That support has seen a recent spike in form at Chichibunomiya (Tokyo) for the Sunwolves. Before the Waratahs match, they had won two on the bounce in the Japanese capital and limited their opponents to 25 points or fewer in two of their last four games. Playing two extra matches in Tokyo this season should certainly help increase crowds should the team remain competitive away from home.
Sunwolves have made four changes to the team to face Waratahs in Super Rugby Round 2 this weekend from the side that were defeated 45-10 last weekend in Singapore.
Assistant coach Scott Hansen will continue to take charge of the side, with Tony Brown occupied with the Rugby World Cup Training Squad together with Jamie Joseph. Hansen will be looking for a response from his team after a disappointing performance in their season opener last weekend.
“It’s giving people the opportunity to play and building our game and roster. This week this is the best group that is playing,” said Hansen, whose side conceded 16 penalties against Sharks, more than double the tally of their opponents
Hiroshi Yamashita makes his first Super Rugby start for Sunwolves, coming in at tighthead prop to replace Asaeli Ai Valu, who in turns drops to the replacements bench.
“The opportunity is there this week for him (Yamashita) to give us that solid foundation,” Hansen remarked, after Sunwolves struggled against Sharks in the scrum and line-out.
Tom Rowe, meanwhile, makes his Sunwolves debut in the second row, in place of James Moore. Prop Pauliasi Manu is also in line to make his Sunwolves debut off the bench.
Hansen makes no alterations to the back row, with Hendrik Tui, Ed Quirk and Rahboni Warren Vosayaco all keeping their places for the match at Chichibunomiya, after the trio did not miss a single tackle in the opener against Sharks.
In the backs, both Kaito Shigeno and Hayden Parker retain their places at half-back as Hansen looks to build familiarity within the team following an evident lack of team cohesion in Round one in Singapore.
Suntory’s Ryoto Nakamura starts at centre in place of Phil Burleigh, while Jason Emery comes in for the injured Rene Ranger, meaning Gerhard van den Heever, who started at full-back against Sharks, switches to the right wing with Emery deployed at full-back.
Having conceded 50 points or more in each of their three encounters against Waratahs to date, Sunwolves will be hoping to build on a promising defensive display in their opening game, despite conceding 45 points to the Sharks.
1. Defence improvements?
Defence has been one area that Sunwolves have failed to address in their three seasons in Super Rugby to date. Despite shipping 45 points in their opening match of 2019, they recorded a respectable tackle-success rate of 89.7%, even better than their opponents, Sharks (88.7%).
The Sunwolves back row that started the match against Sharks didn’t miss a single tackle, with Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, Ed Quirk and Hendrik Tui making 25 tackles between them. Tony Brown and deputee Scott Hansen will hope that this resilience in the tackle with spread beyond the back row as Sunwolves look to curb the reputation as the whipping boy of Super Rugby.
2. Ill-discipline to blame
Sunwolves conceded a staggering 16 penalties against Sharks, equating to them being penalized once almost every five minutes. Those 16 penalties are more than double the tally that their opponents conceded, with the hosts often penalized at the breakdown.
What’s more alarming for the Sunwolves coaching staff is that seven of those penalties conceded came in their own 22 and were ultimately pivotal in their downfall against the Sharks.
3. Brown's disappearing act
Tony Brown was nowhere to be seen at Singapore National Stadium on Saturday, with assistant coach Scott Hansen tasked with taking control of the Sunwolves for the game. Despite Brown being unveiled as head coach of the team last year, it appears that he will not be coaching the side for the first month at least as he prioritises training camps with the Japan national side over Super Rugby. Brown was spotted with Jamie Joseph at an England training session last week in the build-up to Sunwolves’ opener in Singapore.
4. Lack of cohesion
Apart from the opening 10 minutes, Sunwolves offered very little attacking threat with ball in hand, opting to kick possession away instead of trusting their hands.
They were arife with handling errors, which cost them dear at crucial moments in the match. Could it be down to a lack of time together and the abundance of new faces that have affected team chemistry?
5. Sayonara Singapore?
Sunwolves have now lost seven of their nine matches in Singapore. Watching the match in a soulless stadium isn’t ideal for neither players nor fans, and it’s disastrous for SANZAAR for the TV camera to pick up on all those empty seats inside the stadium.
Even in their only win to date at Singapore National Stadium, a meagre 5,000 fans turned out to watch them at the 55,000 capacity arena. Despite the vast number of expats residing in Singapore, Sunwolves’ efforts to win over those expats and attract them to Super Rugby matches has been largely successful. Singapore matches need to be scrapped for the sake of the franchise and Super Rugby as a whole.
New Sunwolves head coach Tony Brown this week announced the franchise’s initial squad for the 2019 Super Rugby season, in what will be the team’s fourth season in the competition since their inauguration into the southern hemisphere’s premier club competition in 2016.
Brown, who was assistant coach under Jamie Joseph, will take full control of the Sunwolves first string for the 2019 season. The full squad is expected to be around 50-60 players in total, with those players not in contention for the first team playing for the Sunwolves ‘A’ side, who will compete against other Super Rugby reserve sides. Joseph will manage the ‘A’ side as he aims to combine this with the development of the Brave Blossoms ahead of RWC 2019.
The initial 29-man squad consists of many players who plied their trade for the Japanese franchise last season, with notable additions in the form of Hendrik Tui, who has fought his way back into the Brave Blossoms side in the past month, and once Scotland international Phil Burleigh, who has Super Rugby experience with the Highlanders.
Several players will be added to the squad in the coming weeks, as JSR finalise contracts and agreements with the Top League clubs over release of the players. Coca-Cola and Brave Blossoms duo Timothy Lafaele and William Tupou are both certain to put pen to paper for Sunwolves before the New Year, while Canon players Yu Tamura, Samuele Anise and Yusuke Niwai are also expected to be announced in due course.
A further 2-3 overseas players (not eligible to represent Japan) who could also link up with the squad, including Australia flanker Sean McMahon, who reportedly agreed a one-year deal with the Sunwolves as early as July this year. McMahon, who is already based in Japan with Top League side Suntory Sungoliath, is understood to have turned down offers from Australian franchises to play for the Sunwolves.
Dan Pryor and Rene Ranger, who are already playing domestic rugby in the Top League with Munakata Sanix Blues and Hino Red Dolphins respectively, also join the team for the upcoming campaign, while Otago lock will join the Sunwolves in his first taste of Japanese rugby.
The 2019 season will be a fine balancing act for Japan Super Rugby (JSR), who have set the ambitious target of a play-off spot for the Sunwolves this season. While the arrivals of additional overseas players with substantial experience in the competition such as McMahon will only aid that cause, the impact that they will have on the Japan national team will be far from beneficial. It is no secret that the Sunwolves are used as a vehicle for development for the Brave Blossoms and they cannot afford to lose any game time together as next year’s Rugby World Cup draws ever closer.
Sunwolves’ only two changes to the starting XV from last weekend's tenacious defeat to Crusaders are in the front row, with Shota Horie and Takuma Ashara replacing Jaba Bregvadze and injured Jiwon Koo respectively. It will be the first time that a front row consisting of Craig Millar, who has cemented his place at loosehead prop in recent weeks, Horie and Asahara will be on the field for Sunwolves in Super Rugby. The Japan franchise lost just one scrum in rainy conditions last Saturday, compared to four of seven scrums against Blues the previous weekend. Sunwolves may have it even easier in the scrum this time round against Hurricanes, who currently post the lowest scrum-success of all New Zealand teams (91%), only slightly higher than the Sunwolves (88%).
The second half
Sunwolves have improved significantly at the start of games lately. They were just three points behind Crusaders after 51 minutes, and even led Blues 10-5 in Round 9 in Tokyo. However, they have failed to remain competitive for the whole 80 minutes in any game this term, with their defence often breached in the final 30. Head coach Jamie Joseph has emphasised that his side’s fitness is improving as the Super Rugby season wears on, but could this finally be the game where we see Sunwolves compete for the full duration?
Much of Sunwolves fans’ hope and excitement has been pinned on monstrous winger Hosea Saumaki, who crossed for four tries in his opening three games to mark an emphatic start to his maiden Super Rugby campaign. The 25-year-old was silenced somewhat against Crusaders in Round 10, making just 36 metres over the gainline from his 13 carries, a far cry from the triple-digit figures he was posting across the early stages of the competition.
4. The restart
Two Crusaders' restarts in the second bounced around the 22m line in the space of 10 minutes last Saturday as Sunwolves players looked at one another to wonder why there was no call to take the catch. It is no secret that a diverse range of nationalities are represented in the Sunwolves squad, however communication is evidently an area that demands instant improvement.