The Aussies: (Yep, the Sunwolves are Aussies!”
I am afraid that I find it very difficult to be positive about the Tokyo-based, but clearly international, Sunwolves. The entire raison d’être for their existence as a Super Rugby franchise is to promote the game in Japan, yet they have a team loaded with foreigners. Just 10 of the 2017 squad announced by Jamie Joseph are Japanese by birth, the rest are a veritable foreign legion of imports.
The Sunwolves might attract some vaguely interested crowds, but they are not doing anything for the game in Japan. The major clubs have avoided interacting with the Sunwolves and refuse to release players from their ranks to go and play Super Rugby.
A positive for the Sunwolves is the recruitment of Jamie Joseph as head coach. Joseph is an old salt in the coaching game and has the technical nous to build a good team. He guided the Highlanders to a Super Rugby title victory in 2015, is very highly rated in back in New Zealand.
He does have a minor problem though, he is also involved in coaching the Japanese national squad, and one wonders whether he can juggle his job at the Sunwolves with his Japan duties.
2017 was yet another poor season for the Sunwolves, just 2 wins in their 15 games. There is not much one can say about 2017, they started with a humiliating 83-17 loss to the Hurricanes, at home in Tokyo. The loss continued until Round 7 when their luck finally changed and they scraped a 21-20 victory over the pitiful Bulls.
Everything returned to normal after that, with a string of terrible results before their final game of the season where they managed to pull off the shock result of the entire Super Rugby competition’s history by beating the visiting Blues 48-21!
As the late great Muhammad Ali famously said: “Even the best has to figure to get beat sometime”……………………
The Sunwolves have the good fortune of starting their campaign with home fixtures against the Brumbies and Rebels, but after that it gets a little more difficult. In their next eight fixtures, only three will be at home and they have a mountain to climb against the likes of the Chiefs, Lions, Hurricanes and the Crusaders.
Their last 7 fixtures are similarly problematic, with just one in Tokyo, against the Reds, and one in Singapore against the Bulls. The rest are away from home.
Japan captain Michael Leitch has signed on from the Chiefs. Leitch’s leadership skills will be welcome, as will his ball carrying and defence. How he partners with Willie Britz as a loose-forward combination and as leaders will be interesting.
Another interesting recruit is also from the Chiefs, outside back Robbie Robinson, who should improve the side’s attacking ability.
Not much else one can say about the squad.
After the Sunwolves’ lows of 2016 and 2017, we have to deploy the old cliché: The only way is up for the Sunwolves.
They have a new coach, a man with credibility and a measurable record for taking a team with few giants to a Super Rugby title. Jamie Joseph’s appointment could be the injection they need.
A second positive is that they will now play in the geographically logical Australian Conference after spending their first two years as pseudo Africans. (The logic of that SANZAAR decision still defies all understanding.) Long distance travel and time zone jumps will be somewhat reduced, especially as they will mostly travel north-to-south, in familiar time zones.
Whatever the changes, in coach and conference, and despite their international flavour, I cannot see the Sunwolves being anything other than cannon fodder again.