Super Rugby: Ono's star set to rise in the twilight of his career

Japanese veteran Hitoshi Ono is eyeing a maiden Super Rugby win for the Sunwolves when they take on South Africa's Cheetahs.
Japanese veteran Hitoshi Ono is eyeing a maiden Super Rugby win for the Sunwolves when they take on South Africa's Cheetahs.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

He has played rugby for the Japanese national team for 12 years, and has not missed an international match since 2012.

Hitoshi Ono is Japan's most capped player of all time, having amassed 96 appearances for the Brave Blossoms. Yet, six months ago, the 37-year-old was still somewhat anonymous back home.

That changed last year, when Japan won three games at the Rugby World Cup, shocking giants South Africa 34-32 in the process.

Following that unprecedented success, Ono now finds himself being stopped along the street more often by members of the public, all seeking to take pictures of him or with him, or asking for his autograph.

And his profile is set to enjoy a further boost as he begins a new chapter of his career with Asia's first Super Rugby outfit the Sunwolves.

KEEPING A LID ON THEIR AMBITIONS

Of course we'd like to win, but this is our first year in Super Rugby...we'll always have that in mind.

HITOSHI ONO, Sunwolves lock, on the team's expectations against the Cheetahs in their debut Super Rugby season.

The newly-formed Japanese franchise is an expansion team in the 20-year-old, 18-team competition which boasts players from powerhouses Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Argentina's Jaguares are the other newcomers.

The Sunwolves are coming off a 13-26 loss to South Africa's Lions in their season opener, and will face another South African side, the Cheetahs, in Singapore tomorrow.

It is the first of three home matches at the National Stadium for the Japan-Singapore co-based team, with the other five back in Tokyo.

At a media conference yesterday, Ono said: "Of course we'd like to win (tomorrow's game), but this is our first year in Super Rugby... we'll always have that in mind."

He added: "Singapore is one of the home grounds for us, it's going to have great appeal to people in Asia (especially) since we have the World Cup in Japan in 2019."

This is not the lock's first time in Singapore, having played in the Republic in 2010 for his country.

Yet he is wary about the hot and humid climate, revealing to the media that he had collapsed from a heat stroke back then.

As one of the more experienced players in the 39-man squad, Sunwolves coach Mark Hammett will be hoping the weather proves to be surmountable for Ono.

The former All Black said: "You always rely on your leaders... (Ono) is just an absolutely great player to coach, he does everything and more, and he's a great leader for the younger guys."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'Ono's star set to rise in the twilight of his career'. Print Edition | Subscribe