The first page of what will hopefully become a lengthy, successful and meaningful history for Japanese Super Rugby was today written at Toyota Stadium as Sunwolves ran out 52-24 winners against a Top League XV in their only warm-up match prior to their maiden Super Rugby campaign.
It took less than a minute for the Top League XV to register their first, and what would prove to be, only try of the first half. Suntory Sungoliath’s Shota Emi cleverly intercepted a wayward pass within the opening 60 seconds and ran in for five points, with the conversion successful.
Centre Yasutaka Sasakura, who had been in terrific form during the Top League campaign with champions Panasonic, replied for the Sunwolves a few minutes later in the corner to notch the club’s first ever points. Samoan Tusi Pisi was off-target with the extras though.
Pisi’s crossfield kick was then well collected by full-back Riaan Viljoen and the Springbok recorded his first try in the sunset orange of Sunwolves. The conversion was converted by stand-off Pisi, before Viljoen added a second try minutes later, converted again, to make the score 19-7 to the Super Rugby team.
Pisi was pulling the strings in midfield for Sunwolves, linking up well with fellow Suntory man and scrum half Atsushi Hiwasa. The Samoan ran in a fine solo effort 10 minutes before the interval and added the two points himself to ensure Sunwolves were 26-10 to the good at half-time, following a late penalty by the Top League XV.
Widespread changes for both sides in the second half meant it was difficult for either side to grasp control of the game.
Yu Tamura replaced Pisi at the break, with the Samoan surely making sure of the no.10 shirt in a fortnight’s time when Sunwolves host Lions in their season opener.
Australian Ed Quirk, one of the few Sunwolves players to retain their place in the second half, added another five points to the Japanese club’s growing points tally following a driving maul. Replacement Tamura added the extras.
Another replacement, Akihito Yamada, who only this week returned from sevens duty with Japan in Sydney, touched down in the corner on the 55-minute mark to hand Sunwolves a 30-point lead. Taiyo Ando replied soonafter for the Top League XV to somewhat reduce the deficit.
Ziun Gu and Yamada, his second, both added further late tries in the second half as both sides’ defences were breached far too often for Super Rugby level. Yamaha Jubilo’s Chikara Ito added a consolation try for Top League XV to bring the final score to 52-24.
Sunwolves got the ball rolling today, literally, in their first ever practice session in the first of two week-long training camps in Toyota, Aichi prefecture.
After meeting one another for the first time last week in northern Tokyo, where the team undertook medical tests and basic administrative tasks, head coach Mark Hammett can now look ahead to stamping his mark on the side in the 19 days available before their season opener against Lions on February 27th.
Hammett, who on the eve of the team’s first training session split his troops into four groups for a short relay race to boost team togetherness, said, “I want to the listen to the players’ ideas too. The first day is about building team spirit quickly. We have to believe in one another and make do.”
Fans of the Japanese Super Rugby franchise will see their team in action for the first time in Saturday when the Sunwolves take on a Top League XV. When asked about the lack of preparation, Hammett stated, “It’s not ideal, but there’s nothing we can do about it now. I want to use as many players as possible.”
In a week where another highly-skilled Japan international put pen to paper for a rival Super Rugby franchise with Kotaro Matsushima joining Melbourne Rebels, it has become evident that Sunwolves is sadly not the first-choice destination for Japan’s elite when it comes to Super Rugby.
The past fortnight has seen Kensuke Hatakeyama join Aviva Premiership outfit Newcastle Falcons on a short-term contract, while Hiroshi Yamamoto will have a trial for New Zealand team Chiefs, where if successful, will be re-united with fellow Brave Blossom Michael Leitch.
One of the few members of the Sunwolves team to have featured for Japan in their sensational 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign is Shinya Makabe, who on Friday explained his reasons for joining Mark Hammett’s team: “I joined because I want to increase the number of games I play and gain international experience ahead of the
2019 Rugby World Cup. I’ll do my upmost to develop Japanese rugby.”
“I want to show our ‘Japaneseness’. I think there are players with bigger bodies and more pace than the Japanese (in Super Rugby). I want to see to what extent we can overcome that,” said Makabe.
Hitoshi Ono, who incidentally made way for Makabe in the second half of their famous defeat of South Africa in September, is another forward with a wealth of experience at international level for Japan.
Capped 96 times by the Brave Blossoms, the 37-year-old is expected to play a major role in the development of the younger players during the Sunwolves’ maiden Super Rugby campaign.
“We were able to put into practice things we discussed at the first meeting. The level (of rugby) for each individual is high,” enthused the Toshiba lock, whose team finished runners-up to Panasonic in this season’s Top League. On Hammett, who is just six years older than Ono, he said “He’s a bit like John Kirwan who coached Japan at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.”
The Sunwolves, Japan’s first Super Rugby franchise, will assemble for the first time this week as the team’s maiden campaign draws closer.
Players and staff of the side will be acquainted with one another, before undergoing a series of medical tests at the national sports institute in northern Tokyo on Thursday and Friday. They will then depart for the first of two training camps the following week, with their solitary warm-up match scheduled for Saturday, February 13 against a Top League XV at Toyota Stadium.
After speaking with numerous Top League players and coaches in recent weeks, it transpires several high-profile players and coaches in Japan were approached by the Sunwolves, including one current Japan international and head coach of a Top League side.
Those players in question turned down the offer to play for the Japanese franchise due to their heavy involvement with Japan at the 2015 World Cup and the Top League this term. Another five months of top-level rugby would have been too much of a physical burden. Things may have been different had the Sunwolves held off another year and entered Super Rugby in 2017.
Even though the most notable Japan national team players such as number eight Michael Leitch, scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and full-back Ayumu Goromaru were quickly snapped up their Super Rugby rivals, the Sunwolves can still boast a strong Japanese core to the team. The forwards in the squad alone have an impressive 275 international caps for Japan between them.
Little secret has been made of the fact that this has been a rushed process and marketing of the Super Rugby franchise so far has been minimal. Merchandise is set to go on sale only in mid-February due to the late announcement of sponsors such as Citizen Watch Company and HITO-Communications, with the latter even featuring on the club’s logo.
Compared to past new additions to Super Rugby though, Mark Hammett’s side have been allowed little time to prepare.
The Southern Kings had almost four years between forming and making their Super Rugby bow. Formed in 2009, the Kings played games against the British and Irish Lions in 2009, then facing Georgia, Romania and Portugal in the 2011 IRB Nations Cup, before finally playing their first Super Rugby match in February 2013, thus allowing them ample time to generate interest, sponsors and fans in that 44-month period.
Japan was only granted a license for a franchise in October 2014, a mere 16 months prior to their opening game. Some blame has to be attributed to SANZAR for granting the license to Japan at such short notice.
It will be a tough debut season for the Sunwolves and victories are likely to be few and far between. Sit back and enjoy the ride though. We must remember this is a learning process for the Japanese players, staff and fans as rugby continues its expansion into Asia and Japan.
Things are slowly beginning to take shape for the Sunwolves ahead of their maiden season in the Super Rugby competition. The Japanese franchise’s issues have been well publicised in recent weeks with serious question marks posed by fans and experts as to whether the Sunwolves would be ready on 27 February when they host the Lions at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya Stadium.
Fans’ minds have been put at ease to some extent after it was revealed on Monday former All Blacks Nathan Mauger and Filo Tiatia would be joining the Sunwolves’ coaching team alongside head coach Mark Hammett.
44-year-old Tiatia will be the Sunwolves’ forwards coach and is no stranger when it comes to Japanese rugby. The former Ospreys’ back row plied his trade with Toyota Verblitz as a player between 2002 and 2006 and then as assistant and head coach in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Tiatia also had a stint with the Japan national team under Eddie Jones in 2013.
Mauger, who will coach the backs for Sunwolves, knows head coach Hammett from their time together at Canterbury Crusaders in New Zealand. He also had spells playing abroad in England, France and Italy before taking the reins of the Chinese-Taipei sevens team in Taiwan in 2013. Hammett and Mauger encountered one another during the Christmas holidays and this led to Mauger’s appointment, JRC understands.
These two appointments come three days after Sunwolves announced a sponsorship deal with Japanese human resources company HITO-Communications and the club re-named the HITO-Comm Sunwolves.
Head coach Mark Hammett will take questions from the media and fans later this month at an event in Tokyo with Tiatia and Mauger also expected to make appearances at the event.
Further staff such as translators and medical staff are still in the latter processes of screening, JRC understands. No warm-up games have been announced as yet but it is expected Sunwolves will take on a Kanto-based club in mid-February in preparation for their first Super Rugby game.
Japan’s first Super Rugby team, the Sunwolves, will begin sales tomorrow for their first ever match in the competition, against Lions at Chichibunomiya next month as excitement surrounding Super Rugby's newest franchise rises. The ticket prices, however, will come as a shock to those used to the relatively cheap cost of watching Top League games in Japan.
A ticket bought in advance for a seat in the side stand (category ‘S reserved back’), will set Sunwolves’ fans back a staggering 6000 JPY (£35/$50) compared to a mere 1350 JPY (£8/$11) for a Top League double-header in the same seat at Chichibunomiya. So what exactly is the difference between the matchday experience at a Top League game and a Super Rugby game at Chichibunomiya that justifies the substantial price rise for a ticket?
Apart from the obvious increase in quality of players on show, not a lot. A visit to the stadium last weekend provided little evidence for the almost quadruple increase in price for Super Rugby games in the Japanese capital.
Much has been made of the Superwolves’ preparation, or lack of it, for the 2016 Super Rugby season, notably by Japan rugby expert Rich Freeman, with only head coach Andy Hammett and the playing squad so far announced. No other members of coaching staff, background staff or a fixed training venue have been announced as yet. And this comes just six weeks prior to their opening match in Tokyo.
Those expecting state-of-the-art Japanese technology such as electronic turnstiles with barcode recognition or large HD screens as seen in many stadiums in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will be left disappointed. No turnstiles are currently in place at Chichibunomiya stadium, simply a steward checks your ticket next to a movable table and you’re in. No turnstile, no security check, no bag search, nothing.
Furthermore, the electronic screen, installed in 2003, at the end of the concrete terrace is arguably the most modern thing you’ll find at Chichibunomiya.
Food and beverage options are limited, only six refreshments stands were in operation at the Top League double header at the weekend and all had lengthy queues - this, only when the stadium was a third full at best. Goodness knows what will happen next month when the ground will be at full capacity.
As of Saturday, less than a quarter of the pitch perimeter was filled with advertising hoardings, with the remaining three-quarters of the perimeter simply showing the concrete walls of the stadium and adding to the impression of a rather soulless, dated and sorry sports venue.
One hopes that this issue will be solved by the Sunwolves’ first game next month, not only to improve the appearance of the stadium, but also to fill just a quarter of the ground with advertising when the match is broadcast in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and more, would represent a huge missed opportunity in regard to commercial income.
Indeed, time will tell as to whether these issues will be addressed prior to the Sunwolves' opening match but that game against Lions on February 27th could be a huge wake-up call to those at JRFU and Super Rugby.