Rugby: Agony for Sunwolves as 18-point lead becomes one-point loss

Sunwolves fly-half Tusi Pisi (right) attempting a tackle on Cheetahs scrum-half Shaun Venter at the National Stadium yesterday. The narrow victory was the South African side's first of the season after losses in their first two games.
Sunwolves fly-half Tusi Pisi (left) attempting a tackle on Cheetahs scrum-half Shaun Venter at the National Stadium yesterday. The narrow victory was the South African side's first of the season after losses in their first two games.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
The beaten Sunwolves, co-based in Japan and Singapore, being applauded by the crowd at the National Stadium after their 31-32 loss to the Cheetahs.
The beaten Sunwolves, co-based in Japan and Singapore, being applauded by the crowd at the National Stadium after their 31-32 loss to the Cheetahs. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Leading by 18, Super Rugby debutants fall to South Africa's Cheetahs by a single point

SUPER RUGBY

Sunwolves 31

Cheetahs 32

South African side Cheetahs rebounded dramatically to register their first win of the season, as they condemned the Sunwolves to losses at both of their home bases by grinding out a memorable 32-31 victory over their Japanese opponents.

Asia's first franchise in the 18-team Super Rugby league, the Sunwolves, had only themselves to blame for the narrow defeat at the National Stadium yesterday.

Using the expanse of the field to great success, Mark Hammett's Sunwolves took just four minutes to score their first try through scrum-half Akihito Yamada.

REASON TO BE PROUD

In the first half our set-pieces were outstanding. Scoring four tries is something to be very proud of and the way we scored them was also good.

MARK HAMMETT, Sunwolves coach.

Yamada's second came from a kick that spanned the width of the field, an uncommon attacking move.

Cheered on by 8,808 spectators, some of whom howled like wolves, the 30-year-old Japanese completed a hat-trick in the 34th minute, with captain Shota Horie adding another on the stroke of half-time to put the hosts comfortably ahead 28-13.

Samoan fly-half Tusi Pisi's 43rd-minute penalty conversion put the Sunwolves up 31-13, but little did they know that it would be the last time they would score.

 

For the Cheetahs stormed back with tries from Niel Marais ( his second of the match), Uzair Cassiem and Boom Prinsloo to snatch the lead from the Sunwolves, edging ahead 32-31 with less than 10 minutes remaining.

The Sunwolves were reduced to 14 men following Ed Quirk's yellow card, while their opponents clung on for their first victory in three matches.

On the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by a massive tsunami - one of the worst tragedies to strike Japan - Fukushima native Hitoshi Ono was disappointed that he could not deliver some good news to local fans back home.

Said the 37-year-old lock, who is Japan's most capped player with 96 appearances for the Brave Blossoms: "Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the disaster, and I remembered and thought about it in my mind today.

"I'd told myself that I must win to provide some cheer for those at home.

"I regret that I was not able to win it for my country today.

"It was a big pity to lose by just a point, and we had a good chance to win."

Despite the loss, Sunwolves coach Hammett drew positives from his players' high-scoring performance.

He said: "I thought in the first half our set-pieces were outstanding. Scoring four tries is something to be very proud of and the way we scored them was also good."

VULNERABLE PASSAGE OF PLAY

We had a 20-minute spell when the middle of our pack was caught unguarded, and we were pushed around.

HAMMETT

But the 43-year-old Kiwi has identified an area of weakness he will be working on before they return to the Republic on March 26 to face the Bulls.

Hammett said: "We had a 20-minute spell when the middle of our pack was caught unguarded, and we were pushed around.

"We need to work on that to be more prepared for these attacks."

The Cheetahs were relieved to prevail despite having the odds heavily stacked against them.

The Bloemfontein-based team were missing their key player Lood de Jager and they had played two matches in as many weeks, one more than the Sunwolves, who had a bye.

Said captain Francois Venter: "It's a great experience for us and it's an honour to be part of history in the making here."

Indeed, being able to watch their first Super Rugby game live was a feast for the crowd, a fairly even mix of expatriates and Singaporeans.

Said managing director of a security firm, Anand Singh, 43, who watched the game with his 10-year-old son: "It's 10 times better than watching it on TV."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'Agony for Sunwolves'. Print Edition | Subscribe