Super Rugby Match Preview
Saturday, 24th March
Sunwolves vs Chiefs
Venue: Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo
Kickoff: 13h15 Local Time, 04h15 GMT, 06h15 SA Time
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
Referee: William Houston (Australia)
Assistant referees: Aki Aso (Japan), Tasuku Kawahara (Japan)
TMO: Minoru Fuji (Japan)
I am on record as saying that I do not believe that the Sunwolves should be playing Super Rugby. Their close-run thing against the Lions last week has not changed by opinion one tiny little bit. Yes, they scored five tries and picked up a losing bonus point for their efforts at Ellis Park. So What?
I am convinced that a team made up of mostly foreigners does not bring any benefit to Japanese rugby, nor do they provide any consistently realistic opposition to the rest of the teams in Super Rugby. All they do is add to the already stupidly excessive travel burdens of the rest of the teams playing in the competition, and add a load of unnecessary fixtures to an already overly-long season.
This week they host the Chiefs, who have had to make the long haul up to Tokyo after a humdinger of a match against the Bulls a week ago. It is mentally and physically draining stuff. It is unnecessary!
I remain utterly convinced that the Sunwolves bring no benefits to Super Rugby, nor to their Japanese compatriots.
Chiefs coach Colin Cooper has made five changes to his starting XV for Saturday’s game against the Sunwolves.
Canadian international Tyler Ardron comes in to partner Brodie Retallick in the 2nd row. It’s his first start for the team. Taleni Seu is back at No 8 after a rest last weekend.
In the backline, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi starts at scrum-half, partnering Damian McKenzie who moves back to flyhalf. Toni Pulu is back from injury for the first time this season, on the right wing and Marty McKenzie starts at full-back as his brother moves to fly-half.
Bailyn Sullivan is in line to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench in the number 23 jersey.
Predictably, the Sunwolves have made a host of changes to the side that did so well in Johannesburg last week. There are eleven new names in the starting team, and a positional shift or two.
Willie Britz will lead the Sunwolves on Saturday.
There is a rotational shift in the back three with Kotaro Matsushima moving from full-back to wing, while Ryuji Noguchi will wear the number 15 jersey.
Yu Tamura is at fly-half with Fumiaki Tanaka at scrum-half, while Michael Little replaces William Tupou at inside centre.
Michael Leitch shifts from number eight to blindside, with Edward Quirk and Britz completing the loose trio.
Uwe Helu comes in at lock for Wimpie van der Walt, who is demoted to the bench.
Yet again, there is a brand new front row for the Sunwolves, with Jiwon Koo, Yusuke Niwai and Craig Millar being replaced by Hencus van Wyk, Shota Horie and Keita Inagaki.
The Sunwolves persistence with sweeping changes to the starting team, week after week, simply does not make sense. Last week’s team put together a performance that could have given them a whole heap of confidence, and a foundation on which to build for the rest of the season.
But that cannot happen when you chuck out eleven of the players who started last week, and bring in almost an entire team of new faces.
The constant changes are irrational and counter-productive.
The Chiefs have two wins out of three starts, against the Blues and the Bulls as they arrive to take on the Sunwolves. This is the first time the Chiefs will play in Japan, which will also help to motivate the visitors.
The Chiefs bring their brand of exciting running rugby to this game, yet they are not quite up to speed yet this season. They are ranked a lowly 14th out of 15 for ball carries, just 330 of them so far in the three games of their season. That is still a high of 110 per game, but they are usually right up at the top of this category. I guess three games is not enough to crack the stats barrier.
They have only carried the ball for 2313 meters so far this year, 13th out of 15 teams in the competition. Along the way they have made 24 linebreaks and 21 tackle busts. Both in the upper half of the stats tables.
Despite ranking down in the stats tables in categories we expect them to dominate, they have scored 12 tries and averaged 30.3 points and four tries per game in 2018.
The two teams have pretty similar scrum and lineout success rates, with the Sunwolves just edging it in the scrums by a percentage point or so.
The Sunwolves thrive in a game where the ball is allowed to go wide and loose. Like so many of the bottom-feeders who struggle in the tight phases of the game, they are great on the counter-attack, and will pounce and run on anything that is left lying around.
The Chiefs also like a looser contest, but have shown that they can play it tight and ugly if they have to. (Last year’s quarterfinal against the Stormers is an example of their “ugly rugby” potential.)
With Damian McKenzie at flyhalf, we should not be expecting the Chiefs to hold back and try and slow the game down. It is simply not in his nature to play conservative rugby. (I do not think he has a single hesitant cell in his entire body.) He will take the game to the Sunwolves and will do so at speed, with a large amount of unpredictable stuff thrown in for good measure.
Putting it simply: We should expect a fast open game in Tokyo this Saturday, given McKenzie’s penchant for attack, and the Chiefs’ style of running rugby.
This might afford the Sunwolves opportunities to counter attack. They might even score some tries.
But it will be the Chiefs that run away with this one, by at least 30 points.
Sunwolves: 15 Ryuji Noguchi, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Michael Little, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Willem Britz (c), 7 Edward Quirk, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Kazuki Himeno, 3 Hencus van Wyk, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Jiwon Koo, 19 Wimpie van der Walt, 20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 21 Yutaka Nagare, 22 Robbie Robinson, 23 William Tupou
Chiefs: 15 Marty McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Tyler Ardron, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Karl Tu’inukaufe, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Sean Wainui, 23 Bailyn Sullivan