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.
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: