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.