Sunwolves have unveiled the first batch of players for the 2018 Super Rugby season at a press conference in Tokyo in Monday.
As part of plans to strengthen both the Sunwolves and the Japan national team in the lead-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, 25 of the 28 players selected in the initial squad by Jamie Joseph, who from this season takes on dual responsibility of Sunwolves and Japan national team, will be eligible to represent the Brave Blossoms at Rugby World Cup 2019.
Japan captain Michael Leitch will sign with the Japanese Super Rugby outfit for the 2018 season, having previously confirmed that the 2017 campaign was his final one with the Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand. Akihito Yamada, who was absent from the side last year due to family commitments, has re-signed with the Sunwolves for the upcoming campaign.
Former Munster utility back Gerhard van den Heever, now plying his trade in the Top League with Yamaha, is one of many Japan-based foreign players who comprise the initial 28-man squad named by new head coach Jamie Joseph.
Toyota Verblitz front row Ruan Smith, who brings with him 50 SR caps for Force and Brumbies, former Panasonic Hayden Parker stand-off Hayden Parker and Ricoh’s Robbie Robinson are other non-Japanese players in the Sunwolves squad.
One was surprise inclusion was Jaba Bregvadze. The 30-year-old, who has experience playing in elite European competition with Stade Francais and Worcester, will become the first Georgian player in Super Rugby. "One of our biggest work-ons is the set piece so it's great we have the leader of the Georgian scrum and line-out, as we know how strong they are”, explained Joseph on the reasons behind contracting Bregvadze.
While contractual agreements have been reached with most Top League sides due to the Super Rugby season colliding with the Top League pre-season, Suntory and Munakata Sanix are yet to reach agreements with Japan Super Rugby. Joseph said: "Because of the unusual contracting model in Japan, some of the players we are trying to approach are company employees. That has led to a delay in naming players.” Suntory’s Kotaro Matsushima, Kosei Ono, Hendrik Tui are among three players expected to be announced as Sunwolves players before the end of the year.
It is believed that Sunwolves are still in the market for two marquee signings to help achieve their target of reaching the final five this season. Suntory’s Matt Giteau, Toshiba’s Liam Messam and even Racing 92’s Dan Carter, who recently put pen to paper with Kobelco Steelers for 2018-19, are all names being considered by the Japan Super Rugby management.
Initial 28-man Sunwolves squad: Keita Inagaki, Valu Asaeli Ai, Ji-won Koo, Ruan Smith, Craig Millar, Jaba Bregvadze, Shota Horie, Grant Hattingh, Sam Wykes, Kazuki Himeno, Uwe Helu, Edward Quirk, Shunsuke Nunomaki, Wimpie van der Walt, Willie Britz, Michael Leitch, Fumiaki Tanaka, Yu Tamura, Hayden Parker, Harumichi Tatekawa, Timothy Lafaele, Gerhard van den Heever, Kenki Fukuoka, Akihito Yamada, Mano Lemeki, Robbie Robinson.
A brace of tries from Derek Carpenter was not enough for the Sunwolves as they fell to a 35-25 defeat to Reds in their first ever Super Rugby match in Oceania, in a game shaped by the brute nature of the home team’s forwards.
The visitors opted not to contest in the line-outs, as they did last week in Singapore against Stormers, and focused on dealing with the oncoming driving maul resulting from the throw. It came as no surprise then, that the first try of the game arose from a Reds line-out, rewarding their early dominance from the set-piece, with Curtis Browning diving over the line. Goromaru added the conversion to his early penalty and Reds were 10-0 to the good.
Sunwolves’ heads did not drop though and they responded to Reds’ opening try seven minutes later with one of their own. Quick hands from the backline and hooker Takeshi Kizu, in the starting XV for the second week running in place of Shota Horie, found Derek Carpenter on the left wing, and he held off the lesser-publicised Brisbane-based Japan international, Hendrik Tui, to touch down in the corner.
The line-out held the key to breaking the down the Sunwolves’ defence for the Reds, although it was quick-thinking, not sheer force, that yielded their second try when a short throw saw them come within a metre of the guests’ try-line. Prop James Slipper slipped far too easily through the Sunwolves back-row pairing of Quirk and Moli to give Reds a 17-13 lead at the interval.
Another Reds line-out produced another try as no.8 Browning was driven over the line by his fellow forwards after Sunwolves had shamelessly collapsed the driving maul from the line-out. If Sunwolves can take anything from their first game in Australia, it can be that they won over the home faithful and neutrals inside Suncorp Stadium with their exciting and energetic brand of rugby. Akihito Yamada, Super Rugby’s top try scorer but presented with few chances this afternoon, sprinted down the left touchline before offloading to Pisi, who cleverly fed Carpenter, and the New Zealander ran in his second try of the game.
Moli’s try, his second for the Sunwolves with both coming away from Tokyo and Singapore, would be ultimately overshadowed by the injury to the Goromaru. Japan’s World Cup star failed to replicate his tackling heroics which earned him tackle of the tournament for a try-saving tackle against Scotland, although in an almost identical position on the pitch, Goromaru went shoulder first into the mammoth-like structure of back-row Moli and predictably came off second best. A lesson on tackling perhaps for young fans in the crowd, with Goromaru making no use of his arms in the tackle, and will now miss the remainder of the Super Rugby season, together with Japan’s June tests against Canada and Scotland.
Pisi's failed conversion meant honours were even at 25-25 going into the final 15 minutes. It was the Reds’ forwards who would have the final say of the match though, but in uncharacteristic circumstances as the hosts broke from within their 22 following a knock-on from replacement scrum half Yuki Yatomi. They caught the Sunwolves off guard down the blind side and found prop Caderyn Neville, who galloped 40 metres to produce the final score of the game and deny Sunwolves their first away victory in Super Rugby.
The spotlight has been firmly cast on Ayumu Goromaru this week in the build-up to Sunwolves’ first game in Oceania against Queensland Reds this weekend, but head coach Mark Hammett will be hoping it will be his band of Japanese men that steal the show at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.
The Sunwolves have named an unchanged starting XV from the side which valiantly drew with the Stormers last weekend in Singapore, with just six Japanese players among the starters, the fewest so far this season. Including those half-a-dozen Japanese, a grand total of eight different nationalities are represented in the Sunwolves’ starting XV, including Derek Carpenter and Fijian John Stewart, both of whom have cemented their places in the team in recent weeks.
Club captain Shota Horie is on the replacements bench for the second week running, having previously started all of the Sunwolves’ Super Rugby fixtures this campaign before the Stormers clash. Fatigue and a minor ear injury has led Mark Hammett to select Takeshi Kizu in his place, a decision which yielded results in the line-out last Saturday in Singapore.
Defence was another area in which the Sunwolves notably improved against Stormers, winning an impressive eight turnovers with three of those coming inside their own 22. Liaki Moli, Andrew Durutalo and Faatiga Lemalu, the latter making 16 tackles (4 more than other SW player) all put in stellar performances at the breakdown. Decision making by the forwards at the ruck was the best it had been this season, knowing when to commit numbers.
Some key numbers from the game underline just how resilient the Sunwolves’ defence was in Singapore: