It has been a good few weeks for Japanese rugby and the Sunwolves will look to continue that momentum against the Bulls in Singapore on Saturday.
Following the exploits of the national team, who drew 1-1 with Italy and then thrashed Georgia in their third June international, there is an air of positivety emanating from the country. Head coach of both Japan and the Super Rugby franchise, Jamie Joseph, stated his belief earlier in the week that he thought they could reach the World Cup quarter-finals after those results.
The Sunwolves will be without Joseph for the rest of the season, however, with their boss undergoing back surgery in New Zealand, and Tony Brown has assumed command for the final three matches.
He takes charge of a side that displayed an improvement before the international break as they picked up their first two victories of the campaign. Although successive away defeats set them back, the Japanese outfit should approach this encounter with confidence.
In facing the Bulls, they are taking on a team which has failed to emerge triumphant outside of South Africa in their previous 10 attempts, while the hosts won the last game between the franchises.
On paper, the visitors look strong, but too often they have failed to produce the performances on the pitch and have lost eight of their 13 games so far. They will be favourites going into this contest but the hosts will be dangerous.
The Sunwolves will not be able to match the physical superiority of the South Africans but they have the ability to play some excellent rugby. In Michael Little, the Japanese have one of the form centres in the competition, while there is threat out wide with Semisi Masirewa.
It should be a tight contest but, providing the home team can prevent their opponents from getting too much traction in the close quarters, then they will give themselves an excellent chance of claiming a third win of the campaign.
Team news: The Sunwolves have made eight changes to the side that lost to the Brumbies 41-31 in Canberra at the start of the month for this clash.
Tony Brown takes charge and has brought Gerhard van den Heever, Michael Little and Akihito Yamada into the backline.
There are a further five alterations among the pack to face the Bulls with Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Shunsuke Nunomako, Uwe Helu, Takuma Asahara and Jaba Bregvadze coming into the team up front.
On the bench, only Hencus van Wyk and Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, who both started in their last encounter, remain from the squad that played the Australian outfit.
Meanwhile, the Bulls have named fly-half Handre Pollard as captain for Saturday’s Super Rugby clash.
The playmaker takes over from regular captain, Burger Odendaal, who was not considered due to injury, in a side that welcomes back a number of players who have seen little action this year.
Jamba Ulengo is back at wing, Hanro Liebenberg at number eight and Jannes Kirsten makes a first appearance this season on the side of the scrum. Ulengo and Kirsten have not played at all in this year’s tournament and Liebenberg’s last action was on 14 April against the Sharks.
The midfield combination, where Johnny Kotze will partner Jesse Kriel in Odendaal’s absence, is new as well, while Pollard will have Embrose Papier on his inside. Papier last started on March 23 against the Crusaders.
Edgar Marutlulle, Simpiwe Matanzima and Morne Smith will all make first appearances for the season as well, with the latter two also debuting in the competition and Bulls colours.
“It is great to be back playing in the tournament again. We had a good break, but also had some time together to sort out elements in our play that lacked consistency,” said Bulls coach John Mitchell.
“The Sunwolves are always dangerous, especially on home turf and we will have to be very principled in our approach and execution if we want to stay in the contest.”
2017: Sunwolves won 21-20 in Tokyo
2017: Bulls won 34-21 in Pretoria
2016: Bulls won 50-3 in Pretoria
2016: Bulls won 30-27 in Singapore
Sunwolves: 15 Gerhard van den Heever, 14 Semisi Masirewa, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Michael Little, 11 Akihito Yamada, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Keisuke Uchida, 8 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 7 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 6 Willie Britz (c), 5 Uwe Helu, 4 James Moore, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Jaba Bregvadze, 1 Craig Millar
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Shintaro Ishihara, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Ryoto Nakamura
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Jamba Ulengo, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Johnny Kotze, 11 Divan Rossouw, 10 Handre Pollard (c), 9 Embrose Papier, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Conraad van Vuuren, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Morne Smith, 19 Thembelani Bholi, 20 Nic de Jager, 21 Andre Warner, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Dries Swanepoel
Date: Saturday, June 30
Venue: Singapore National Stadium
Kick-off: 19:55 local (12:55 BST, 11:55 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Tasuku Kawahara (Japan)
TMO: Minoru Fuji (Japan)