Ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the 15 teams participating. Next up, the Sunwolves.
There’s an air of excitement amongst the Tokyo-based franchise’s supporters after Japan’s boss Jamie Joseph was appointed as their new head coach for the 2018 campaign.
Getting Joseph, who guided the Highlanders to a title victory in the 2015 tournament, to coach them was a clever move as he was highly rated in New Zealand before heading to Japan at the end of the 2016 season.
It remains to be seen if the former All Black can juggle his job at the Sunwolves with his Japan duties although he has bolstered the squad with some shrewd signings, who are expected to hit the ground running.
Last year: Another ex-All Black, Filo Tiatia, was the Sunwolves’ head coach for the 2017 campaign, but there were very few positives during his only season in charge of the side. The Sunwolves failed to impress under Tiatia’s guidance and finished the season at the bottom of the Africa One Conference table with just two wins from 15 matches played.
Their campaign started with an embarrassing 83-17 defeat to the tournament’s defending champions, the Hurricanes, in Tokyo and although they showed improvement in their next match, they still lost 37-23 to the Southern Kings in Singapore.
They then headed to South Africa where they continued to struggle and lost to the Cheetahs (38-31) in Bloemfontein and the Bulls (34-21) in Pretoria and that was followed by a 44-31 loss to the Stormers in Singapore.
After a bye in Round 6, the Sunwolves’ luck finally changed the following week in Tokyo when they secured a hard-fought 21-20 victory over the Bulls. That joy was short-lived, however, as they headed to Christchurch, the following week, where the Crusaders thrashed them 50-3 and in their next match they lost 40-16 to the Highlanders in Dunedin.
The men from Tokyo showed signs of improvement in their next two games but still finished on the losing side to the Chiefs (27-20) in Hamilton and the Jaguares (46-39) in Buenos Aires.
They had another bye in Round 12 before the Sharks beat them 38-17 in Singapore and the Cheetahs claimed an easy 47-7 win the following week in Tokyo. With little to play for in their remaining matches, they were like lambs to the slaughter in their clash against the Lions in Johannesburg and eventually suffered a humiliating 94-7 defeat before heading to Cape Town where the Stormers beat them 52-17.
They returned to Tokyo and finished their campaign on a high with a shock 48-21 victory over the Blues.
This year: After the lows of 2017, the only way is up for the Sunwolves and Joseph’s appointment could be the injection which the franchise has been yearning for since they made their debut in the competition in 2016.
Unlike, their two previous campaigns when they were in the Africa One Conference, they will be in the Australian Conference as part of a new restructured tournament.
Joseph has already hinted that 2018 will be a difficult year for his side and feels their biggest challenge is the lack of a break between the Japanese Top League and Super Rugby seasons.
They kick off their campaign with home fixtures against the Brumbies and Rebels and victory in at least one of those matches will be shot in the arm for a side who head into this campaign as favourites to finish with the tournament’s wooden spoon.
Of their next eight fixtures, only three will be at home and they face tricky away assignments during that period against tournament heavyweights like the Chiefs, Lions, Hurricanes and the defending champions, the Crusaders.
Their last seven matches will also be difficult as most of them will be away from home and a win in one of those fixtures will be momentous as it will be their first-ever away triumph.
Key players: The recruitment of Japan captain Michael Leitch from the Chiefs was a good piece of business by the Sunwolves as the 29-year-old has proven to be one of the tournament’s best loose forwards in recent years. Leitch’s leadership skills will be a welcome boost while his ball carrying and defence is also expected to improve the side.
Another forward who will be important to the cause is veteran hooker Shota Horie. At 32, he might be in the twighlight of his career but his prowess up front, especially in the tight exchanges, is still of a good quality and his experience will also be valuable.
Fly-half Yu Tamura will also play a leading role as he will be expected to provide direction amongst the backs and keep the scoreboard ticking with accurate goalkicking.
Players to watch: Despite the team’s poor form in 2017, one player who impressed emerged with an enhanced reputation is South African back-row Willie Britz, who caught the eye with several outstanding performances. Britz will be hoping to build on those showings and his partnership with Leitch will be crucial.
Also keep an eye on Japan and former Highlanders scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka, who will be highly motivated after he failed to ignite the back-line in his first season with the Sunwolves last year.
Another exciting signing is former Chiefs outside back Robbie Robinson, who, like most New Zealanders, should improve the side’s attacking ability.
Prospects: Although there’s plenty of optimism in their ranks, the Sunwolves will, once again be amongst the tournament’s also rans. Joseph’s appointment is a step in the right direction, and they will be more competitive under his guidance, but they should bring up the rear in the Australian Conference.
Players in: Asaeli Ai Valu (Panasonic Wild Knights), Jaba Bregvadze (Worcester Warriors), Grant Hattingh (Kubota Spears), Kazuki Himeno (Toyota Verblitz), Michael Leitch (Chiefs), Lomano Lemeki (Honda Heat), Craig Millar (Highlanders), Ruan Smith (Toyota Verblitz), Hayden Parker (Highlanders), Robbie Robinson (Ricoh Black Rams), Gerhard van den Heever (Yahama Jubilo), Wimpie van der Walt (Docomo Red Hurricanes), Akhito Yamada (Panasonic Wild Knights)
Players out: Kohei Asahori (Toyota Verblitz), Heiichiro Ito (Yamaha Júbilo), Masataka Mikami (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Yasuo Yamaji (Canon Eagles), Koki Yamamoto (Yamaha Júbilo), Takeshi Kizu (Kobelco Steelers), Atsushi Sakate (Panasonic Wild Knights), Kyosuke Kajikawa (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Naohiro Kotaki (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Liaki Moli (Hino Red Dolphins), Yuya Odo (Yamaha Júbilo), Hitoshi Ono (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Kazuhiko Usami (Panasonic Wild Knights), Kotaro Yatabe (Panasonic Wild Knights), Shokei Kin (NTT Communications Shining Arcs), Malgene Ilaua (released), Shuhei Matsuhashi (Ricoh Black Rams), Yuhimaru Mimura (Yamaha Júbilo), Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco (NTT Communications Shining Arcs), Takahiro Ogawa (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Kaito Shigeno (Toyota Verblitz), Yuki Yatomi (Yamaha Júbilo), Hayden Cripps (Hino Red Dolphins), Jumpei Ogura (NTT Communications Shining Arcs), Hikaru Tamura (Suntory Sungoliath), Michael Bond (Canon Eagles), Derek Carpenter (Suntory Sungoliath), Ryohei Yamanaka (Kobelco Steelers), Shota Emi (Suntory Sungoliath), Teruya Goto (NEC Green Rockets), Ataata Moeakiola (Tokai University), Takaaki Nakazuru (Suntory Sungoliath), Kazushi Hano (NTT Communications Shining Arcs), Rikiya Matsuda (Panasonic Wild Knights), Yasutaka Sasakura (Panasonic Wild Knights), JJ Taulagi (Newton Abbot RFC), Riaan Viljoen (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes)
Round 1: BYE
Saturday, 24 February v Brumbies (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 3 March v Rebels (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 10 March v Sharks (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, 17 March v Lions (Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, 24 March v Chiefs (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Round 7: BYE
Saturday, 7 April v Waratahs (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 14 April v Blues (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 21 April v Crusaders (: AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, 27 April v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Round 12: BYE
Saturday, 12 May v Reds (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 19 May v Stormers (tbc)
Friday, 25 May v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Sunday, 3 June v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, 30 June v Bulls (Singapore National Stadium, Singapore)
Saturday, 7 July v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, 13 July v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)