Rugby: Japan's Super Rugby boon

Super Rugby side the Sunwolves joining Singapore's national wheelchair rugby team for a introductory session on Friday (May 19) night. The Sunwolves are playing the Sharks of South Africa on Saturday at the National Stadium. VIDEO: SINGAPORE SPORTS HUB
Sunwolves before their match against the Sharks for the Super Rugby contest.
Sunwolves before their match against the Sharks for the Super Rugby contest.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Sunwolves may be struggling but national players have improved from the experience

Super Rugby wins have been hard to come by for the Sunwolves with just two victories through two seasons and 25 matches. But the Japanese players believe they remain on track to achieve their long-term goal; qualifying for the knockout stage of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Hosts Japan were handed a relatively favourable draw and will face Scotland, Ireland, a European qualifier and the qualifying play-off winner in Pool A.

Avoiding three-time world champions New Zealand or world No. 2 England was a boost, said Sunwolves' fly-half and Japanese international Harumichi Tatekawa.

The 27-year-old, who is Sunwolves co-captain, added: "I believe that individually, the players have gained a lot of experience and we have improved by playing in Super Rugby. Personally, being the captain of this team is a tough job, but I'm learning to lead.

"There's a close relationship between the Sunwolves and the Japanese national team, so I think that this Super Rugby experience has helped us to develop and become stronger. But Scotland are not going to be easy for us."

The Scots were the only team to beat the Brave Blossoms at the last World Cup in England, which saw Japan claim a stunning upset over two-time champions South Africa and notch wins over Samoa and the United States. Japan narrowly missed out on a spot in the quarter-final, which would have been the first by an Asian team.

To prepare for that challenge on home soil, the Sunwolves - comprising mainly Japanese internationals - joined the annual Super Rugby tournament last year to gain high-level experience.

While the Singapore and Tokyo co-based outfit have been criticised for being out of their depth with several lopsided losses, lock Hitoshi Ono stressed that the exposure and learning to cope with the physicality of bigger-sized opponents would pay dividends later on.

The 39-year-old, Japan's most- capped player with 98 appearances, said: "The international stage is high in intensity and Super Rugby is equally as intense. As such, young players can easily adapt to the international level."

The World Cup assignment is still two years away but results now are crucial in boosting confidence and morale. Nothing would please Sunwolves coach Filo Tiatia more than for his squad to secure their second victory of this campaign against the Sharks of South Africa at the National Stadium today.

He said: "When we left Singapore (in March) we reflected and thought about what we can improve. Firstly the execution and secondly our game plan.

"There are also other areas such as scrummaging, lining up, and kick-off. For us we improve on one area but slip up on others. We're still improving."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'Japan's super rugby boon'. Print Edition | Subscribe