Sunwolves : The Match Will Be Held, Rain or Shine
So states one of the terms and conditions on the tickets page of Tokyo's newest rugby outfit, the 'Sunwolves'; though many rugby commentators across the globe probably wish this weren't the case. The 'HITO-Communications SUNWOLVES' - the catchy name for the first Japanese team to be included in the international Super Rugby series are a little over a year old but have been born into controversy.
2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary of 'Super Rugby'; unofficially at least. Matches between teams from New Zealand and Australia have been taking place since 1986 but it wasn't until the sport turned professional in the mid-nineties that the 'Super 12' was created and an official body (SANZAR South Africa, New Zealand and Australia Rugby) appointed in charge. The 12 later became 14 and the 14 turned into 15 before the most recent expansion was announced in November 2014. This year's tournament, which begins in a little over two weeks time, will include eighteen teams an additional side from South Africa, the Jaguares of Argentina and our soon-to-be-beloved, Sunwolves. A cursory glance at the SANZAR website, however, would lead you to believe there are only 17; for an unknown reason, they have still omitted the South African Kings side. This, it would appear, is simply the tip of the ill-prepared iceberg.
Of these eighteen, only one will emerge victorious from the final on August 6th; the main contention (misplaced or not) among rugby circles at present is that this final will almost certainly not contain the Sunwolves. Sporting bookmaker 'William Hill' lists the Chiefs of New Zealand as favourites to lift the trophy at odds of 11/2. The Sunwolves? A staggering 200/1, and rank outsiders of the competition. David Campese, a world cup winning winger for the Wallabies, told 'Planet Rugby' that the team's efforts are doomed, saying 'they're trying to create something that's not really viable'.
Sport fans seem to have a very short memory in terms of expansion and growth. The 'Six Nations' used to only contain the four home nations of the UK, the 'Rugby Championship' of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina was originally a straight match-up between the Antipodean sides, and only last month French club Toulon opened negotiations to move into the English Premiership. This rampant expansion and evolution is not just an aspect of rugby, but worldwide sport; take the NFL's recent plans to place a franchise in London by the year 2022 as a prime example. Japan's unbelievable success at the 2015 World Cup and plans to host the 2019 edition aside, we also have a hugely popular premier competition in the 'Top League' and a proven track record in hosting major sporting events. With all this, Tokyo seems like an ideal location to join a league that has been growing continually since its' foundation. Sports' governing bodies seek to expand tournaments (and revenues) very regularly, so why have the Sunwolves caused such an uproar?
The fate of the Sunwolves is linked, for better or worse, to that of the national side. They are both run by the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) and the Sunwolves' first disappointment, ironically enough, came at the same time as a huge victory for the JRFU. Former national team coach, Eddie Jones, was appointed as Director of Rugby for the Sunwolves and looked set to take over following last autumn's World Cup. However, the good work Jones had achieved with Japan led to a job offer from the Stormers of South Africa in August, before he accepted the lucrative role as head coach of England after Japan's World Cup success. This left both Japan, and the Sunwolves, rudderless. The delay by the JRFU in waiting until the World Cup was over seems indicative of their problems and their solution to the 'Eddie Jones problem'? Naming former All-Black Mark Hammett, former coach of Super Rugby outfit the Hurricanes, for a brief stint in 2011, as head coach. Until a matter of weeks ago, he was the sole member of the coaching staff but has since been joined by fellow New Zealanders' Nathan Mauger and Filo Tiatia. However, whether a simple computing error or a sign of greater underlying problems, the team's official website still has no mention of them. Perhaps more worryingly is where Hammett and Tiatia would have been working had they not been offered contracts in Tokyo; as an assistant coach for a team in Tasmania, and as Director of Rugby for a high school in New Zealand, respectively. Moreover, rumour has it that Mauger himself was only given the job because of a stray meeting over Christmas.
With a full squad and enough coaches to allow them to use the word 'staff' for the first time, the Sunwolves' problems appeared to be over. The only hitch? The team is yet to begin training. According to the official website, the Sunwolves will start from the 8th of February with a couple of days training in Aichi and a week in Okinawa, with a pre-season game against a 'Top League XV' in-between, before their first game against the Lions on February 27th. The reason for this (literal) island hopping for what should be two weeks intense training should be to further the team's appeal around the country, but could in fact be because they don't have an official training base as yet. The Japan Times claimed they are to use the facilities of Suntory Sungoliath and Toshiba Brave Lupus based in Fuchu and the Canon Eagles, based in Machida. These treks across Tokyo are unfortunately, the least of the Sunwolves' logistical issues this season.
Tokyo's gain in being given the honour of a Super Rugby franchise is believed to have come at the expense of Singapore. Perhaps as a result of this, three of the eight 'home' games will take place in the Singapore National Stadium, which as you might have guessed, is not within the Greater Tokyo Area. This attempt to widen rugby's appeal across Asia may seem a smart move for SANZAR but may threaten to dilute the Sunwolves' identity for Japanese fans. A bigger problem for the new fans is when the Sunwolves are not playing at home. As part of one of the two 'African Conferences', they will play their remaining eight games in South Africa, meaning the squad will spend almost two-thirds of the season on the road, with a lot of flight time. All games will be televised I'm sure but at rather unsociable hours due to the seven hour time difference. Games in Australia or New Zealand would have required less travel time, and crucially would have been much more suitable viewing times at the very least. Not to mention the obvious draw that a possible fixture between the Sunwolves and national icon Goromaru's Queensland Reds would have had on the viewing public. For those fans wishing to purchase a Sunwolves' official jersey? Canterbury will not release them for sale until mid-February. And for those who might want to attend one of the few true home games at Chichibunomiya Stadium? Ticket prices are three times the price of a Top League game.
Critics would argue that regardless of how much training and preparation the Sunwolves' have under their belt, it will never be enough for a team that contains only 10 of Japan's 'Brave Blossoms' to compete with some of the best sides in club rugby. In July they had only two players on the books and though they have worked hard to fill out the rest of the squad, this might not be enough. Among the 34 man squad are a few household names; not least the Panasonic Wild Knight's captain and recent Top League MVP, Shota Horie, but there are also a number of players whose highest level achieved has been University rugby. Chris Rattue, of the New Zealand Herald said that unless 'bonus points for best-dressed, or team with the most sushi restaurants close by' are awarded, it's hard to see them getting any at all.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of potential in our new side. Perhaps as a result of what's been seen at the Sunwolves, the JRFU has moved to ensure the same thing does not happen to the national team. They've installed Jamie Joseph, current coach of the Otago Highlanders, Super Rugby Champions of 2015, and announced plans to host two games against Scotland in June, before travelling to face Wales in November. Anyone who was lucky enough to be in front of a television screen in Japan on the night the Brave Blossoms triumphed over South Africa (at odds of 100/1 we shouldn't forget) will know the impact rugby can have in this country. A number of years ago many people would have been barely aware of the sport's existence in Japan, but now if you ask any child about the famed Goromaru, they will instantly adopt his trademark kicking pose.
The Top League culminated last week (January 24th) with Panasonic beating Toshiba Brave Lupus in a thrilling game of rugby that ended 27-26, securing their third consecutive title. On the pitch, there were two South African legends in François Steyn and JP Pietersen, former Australian Head Coach Robbie Deans and countless of the best Japanese national players including Fumiaki Tanaka, captain Michael Leitch and future 'Sun wolf', Shota Horie. Off the pitch, 25,000 fans cheered and roared in a sell-out game that merited the occasion. A game of this quality is just what is needed from the Sunwolves this season. The opportunity for more greats of the game to come to Chichibunomiya Stadium on a regular basis, either to play for the team or against it, will help increase the sport's fan-base exponentially. We just have to hope that the possibility of seeing them beat the Sunwolves doesn't damage the sport's reputation.
The success of the national team at last year's World Cup came at the perfect time to kick-start the drive towards 2019. Yet between now and then, there will be few chances for local fans to see the Brave Blossoms in action; thus, the Sunwolves must take over the mantle. Though only 10 of the nation's heroes are part of the current squad, some good results (or at least, good performances) will tempt the likes of Goromaru and Kensuke Hatakeyama home. The possibility of a 'Sunwolves/ Japan' squad playing the best club sides the Southern Hemisphere has to offer would be an ideal opportunity to take the sport to the next level in Japan; continuing its steady rise in fans before 2019 and allowing the players plenty of chances to test themselves. The lack of preparation seen so far in pre-season is worrying, but would not do nearly as much damage to the sport as a disastrous season itself. The teething problems of the Sunwolves will be long forgotten if, somehow, it turns out this team has some bite.