Rugby: Results critical for underdogs Sunwolves as 1st Asian team in expanded super league

Sunwolves head coach Mark Hammett (in suit) with his players (from left) Shinnosuke Kakinaga, Yuki Yatomo and Australian Edward Quirk during a press conference in Tokyo on Dec 21.
Sunwolves head coach Mark Hammett (in suit) with his players (from left) Shinnosuke Kakinaga, Yuki Yatomo and Australian Edward Quirk during a press conference in Tokyo on Dec 21.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Coach says players' progress and experience gained will aid in the growth of rugby in Japan

They are the first Asian team in the newly-expanded Super Rugby league but any expectations of emulating Japan's giant-killing heroics at the World Cup should be tempered.

Sunwolves in name they may be but the team are likely to be underdogs on the pitch, said head coach Mark Hammett, who painted a realistic picture of his side's prospects ahead of their season opener against the Lions of South Africa on Feb 27 in Tokyo.

The former All Blacks hooker told The Straits Times yesterday in a phone interview from Christchurch: "It goes without saying we're going to start every game as the underdogs. It's our first year and this is a very tough competition with some world-class teams."

With the bulk of his 34-man squad still involved with their previous teams and available to train under Hammett only at the start of next month, the task before the 43-year-old New Zealander is even harder.

Despite the numerous delays in staff recruitment which have plagued the new Japanese franchise, Hammett - who was himself officially appointed on Dec 21 on a short-term contract which ends in July - remained defiant.

Making the quarter-finals of the 18-team competition may be unrealistic but that will not stop the Sunwolves from trying, said Hammett, who earned 29 caps for his country from 1999 until 2003 before a neck injury forced him into retirement.

SINGAPORE FANS IN FOR A TREAT

All our matches in Singapore are against South African teams. It's going to be a bit like David versus Goliath... I like my teams to play with speed, keep the ball, a nice and quick brand of rugby. The fans in Singapore can expect three exciting games.''

MARK HAMMETT, Sunwolves head coach

"At this stage, it's hard to make predictions about targets. We're still putting things together and I do not know this group of players very well.

"But that doesn't mean there's no pressure on us to win games."

Added the former coach of Kiwi Super Rugby club Wellington Hurricanes: "This is a professional team and I expect us to be professional when we go out there.

"We still set the bar high and will be the ones putting pressure on ourselves to win."

While the Sunwolves' line-up will not feature any big names, it does have 15 players with Test experience and 10 members of the Japan squad - including lock Hitoshi Ono, the country's most capped player with 96 international appearances - that stunned two-time world champions South Africa at the recent World Cup's pool stage in England.

A few respectable results in their debut Super Rugby campaign will go a long way in aiding the growth of the sport in Japan, host of the next World Cup in 2019, noted Hammett.

He added: "What we do in the next six months is critical. It will show Japan what it needs to be competitive at this level, how its recruitment should be for players and coaching staff and provides a clear vision for subsequent years.

"And hopefully by 2019 we could see a Japanese head coach in Super Rugby.

"This is a great vehicle for Japanese rugby. Win, lose or draw, their players will have 15 matches, week in, week out, against top-class sides.

"They will learn some hard lessons along the way but you can't beat that kind of experience."

With their home matches split between Tokyo and Singapore and away ties in South Africa and Australia, Hammett's players will also have to get used to plenty of long-haul flights.

The Sunwolves will make their Singapore debut on March 12 against South Africa's Cheetahs before clashes against the Bulls (March 26) and Stormers (May 14) at the National Stadium.

Said Hammett: "All our matches in Singapore are against South African teams. It's going to be a bit like David versus Goliath but we've seen upsets happen before.

"I like my teams to play with speed, keep the ball, a nice and quick brand of rugby.

"The fans in Singapore can expect three exciting games."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'Results critical for underdogs'. Print Edition | Subscribe