June 4, 2016 1:00 pm JST

Sunwolves endure tough debut in Super Rugby

JOHN DUERDEN, Contributing writer

SEOUL -- For Japan's Sunwolves rugby union franchise, top-flight competition has come as a shock. Short of preparation time, unable to hire some of Japan's top players, and hit by a punishing travel schedule, the new team has endured a torrid first season in Super Rugby, the prestigious southern hemisphere competition.

However, few expected that the Sunwolves' debut season would be easy. And while the Japanese franchise has suffered a couple of thrashings, there have been signs both on and off the field of play that the team has a long-term future at the top level.

Super Rugby has traditionally featured teams from the three elite rugby powers of the southern hemisphere: Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The number of teams was expanded from 15 in 2015 to 18 in 2016 to add an additional team from South Africa and spread the tournament to Argentina and Japan -- both countries where rugby has long traditions but trails soccer in both popularity and resources.

The Sunwolves came into existence in 2015 and played their first game in February amid widespread concerns that the team would be out of its depth -- not least because of the short preparation period available. Japan was granted a license by SANZAR, the body that operates Super Rugby, in October 2014, just 16 months before its first game.

By contrast, the Southern Kings, a South African team that rejoined Super Rugby this year after missing the 2014 and 2015 seasons, had 44 months to prepare players, games and sponsors before taking the field for its first season in February 2013.

The Sunwolves' momentum was boosted by the Japanese national team's dramatic success in their first game at the 2015 Rugby World Cup tournament in England, where the Brave Blossoms, as the team is known, stunned the sporting world by defeating South Africa, one of the tournament favorites.

However, by the time the Sunwolves started to put a team together, many of the World Cup heroes had already joined other Super Rugby clubs outside Japan, including stars such as Ayumu Goromaru, Fumiaki Tanaka and Michael Leitch.

The team also had to do without Eddie Jones, the Australian coach who masterminded the Brave Blossoms' World Cup campaign and had been installed as director of rugby for the Sunwolves. Jones resigned in August 2015 and is now the head coach of the English national team.

The uncertainty and truncated preparation period left time for only one warm-up match before the competition started. After 12 competitive games, the team is bottom of its conference, with just one win, one draw and 10 losses.

The team's record so far is slightly worse than those of the Southern Kings and the Jaguares, the new Argentinian franchise, which both have two wins and 10 losses. However, the Sunwolves have lost heavily only twice: 92-17 to the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs in South Africa and 66-5 to the Canberra-based Brumbies in their last game in Australia on May 28. Three other defeats were by margins of five points or fewer. To great rejoicing, the Sunwolves beat the Jaguares 36-28 in Tokyo in April.

For some this is encouraging in a debut season, for others, less so. "They've lost six games and everyone's happy they're fighting hard," Jones said in April, adding that the team had a poor squad due to the lack of professional people employed behind the scenes. "But there's no joy in losing games. It's just gone back to the old Japan rugby, fight hard and we're proud of you, which is not good enough."

These comments seem harsh. As well as being a new franchise facing traditional rugby powerhouses, the Sunwolves have already spent over 100 hours in the air traveling to South Africa and Australia. That is the league's most demanding travel schedule at this stage of the competition.

Toughest competition

"It is fair to say that this year is a learning year," said Brendan Morris, CEO of SANZAR. "Super Rugby is the toughest rugby competition in the world given the standard of competition, number of teams, number of countries and travel commitments," said Morris. "The Sunwolves have performed pretty well in their debut season given these factors."

Boosted by Japan's fine showing at the 2015 World Cup, a sell-out crowd of 25,000 saw the Sunwolves' first home game in Tokyo. So far, the Japanese capital has hosted four Super Rugby games with average attendance of around 17,000. Television exposure has also been encouraging. Tokyo games have been covered by J-Sports, one of the biggest broadcasters in the country.

Gen Fukushima, operations manager of the Sunwolves, admits that in the rush to get a team on the field ahead of this season, there was little time to put together comprehensive marketing and business plans. But Fukushima said preparations for next season will be different.

"Currently, even in the middle of the 2016 season, we have started our season review and are designing strategic plans for the 2017 season," he said. "We are moving to the next step in all of the aspects not only in team management aspects but also in business management aspects."

Although rugby in Japan received a big boost from the 2015 World Cup, much may depend on the next world championship tournament in 2019, which will take place in Japan -- offering the sport a crucial opportunity to underpin its growing popularity.

"They [the Sunwolves] have brought a unique brand into the tournament from Asia and in many ways have harnessed the energy in the region for rugby that was created by Japan at [the 2015] Rugby World Cup," said Morris. "Media coverage of rugby in the region has increased and will continue to do so given Japan hosts the 2019 Rugby World Cup."

Fukushima agreed that the 2019 World Cup will be vital for the sport's prospects in the country. "One thing we have to leverage is our clear milestone in 2019. It is for sure that the rugby market in Japan will keep expanding," he said.

Japan is by far Asia's strongest rugby power, even though the game remains a long way behind the southern hemisphere strongholds and the sport's northern hemisphere bastions in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy.

For the Sunwolves, this offers an opportunity to position the club as Asia's representative in world club rugby, thereby increasing its profile and support. In an effort to achieve that objective the Sunwolves play three games in Singapore this season, hoping to attract widespread backing in the multiracial city state. Encouragingly, the first two games played there each attracted more than 8,000 people.

"It is a very new and good thing for Japan Rugby that even non-Japanese children are wearing Sunwolves Jerseys," said Fukushima. "We need to put more effort into Singapore to increase our fan base there through various types of marketing activities.

"In our last visit, our players visited both Japanese and international schools. We strongly believe that these kinds of grass-root activities and increasing opportunities to communicate with supporters or potential supporters will become key for our future success."

Meanwhile, the priority for the Sunwolves is to improve results on the field. Perhaps fortunately, the heavy defeat by the Brumbies is followed by a break in the schedule until July 2, when the team will play the Sydney-based Waratahs in Tokyo. Less happily, the Waratahs lie second in their conference, and won their last game against New Zealand's Chiefs on May 27 by 45 points to 25.

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