Rugby: Sunwolves all set for kick-off

Mark Hammett (in suit) with Sunwolves players wearing their new jerseys – Shinnosuke Kakinaga (left), Yuki Yatomo (second from left) and Edward Quirk (right)
during a press conference in Tokyo. Hammett was unveiled as the head coach of the Sunwolv
Mark Hammett (in suit) with Sunwolves players wearing their new jerseys – Shinnosuke Kakinaga (left), Yuki Yatomo (second from left) and Edward Quirk (right) during a press conference in Tokyo. Hammett was unveiled as the head coach of the Sunwolves, at the helm of a 34-man squad. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

With just over two months before the 2016 Super Rugby season kicks off, new Japanese club the Sunwolves have finally unveiled the make-up of their team.

Former All Blacks hooker Mark Hammett was yesterday named coach and handed the task of getting the 34-man squad ready for the opener against the Lions of South Africa on Feb 27 in Tokyo.

The 43-year-old New Zealander, who earned 29 caps for his country from 1999 until 2003 before a neck injury forced him into retirement, had spent four seasons (2011-2014) at the helm of another Super Rugby side, the Wellington Hurricanes.

He inherits a franchise that has been plagued by delays and uncertainties over the past several months.

Australian Eddie Jones, the former Japan head coach now with England, was supposed to oversee the Sunwolves’ maiden season but announced before the Rugby World Cup that he would be stepping down, citing a lack of ambition at the Japan Rugby Union.

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In a further blow, a host of Japanese internationals, including captain Michael Leitch and World Cup stars Ayumu Goromaru and Male Sa’u, opted to ply their trade with overseas Super Rugby teams.

The Sunwolves, who will play in a blood orange kit with a reserve strip of grey, are part of an expanded 18-team competition next year along with the Southern Kings of South Africa and Argentina’s first franchise, the Jaguares.

Hammett’s playing staff includes 15 with Test experience and 10 members of the Japan squad that stunned the rugby world by beating former world champions South Africa at the recent World Cup.

Despite their creditable performances, they became the first team in Cup history to win three pool games and yet miss out on a quarter- final spot.

Among the foreign players on the Sunwolves’ roster are former Auckland Blues lock Liaki Moli and ex-Hurricanes fly-half Tusi Pisi.

They will feature alongside Argentina loose forward Tomas Leonardi, South Africa full-back Riaan Viljoen and Australia Under-20 flanker Eddie Quirk.

Calling this a “new challenge for Japan rugby”, the Sunwolves’ representative director Yoshitaka Tashiro noted in yesterday’s press conference in Tokyo: “We are going to challenge Super Rugby, the world’s greatest provincial rugby competition with these players.”

Thanks to an agreement signed last year between the Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) and its Japanese counterpart, the Sunwolves will be co-based in the Republic, where they will play three of their eight home ties. The team will make their Singapore debut on March 12 against South Africa’s Cheetahs before clashes against the Bulls (March 26)and Stormers (May14) at the National Stadium.

Said SRU vice-president Jonathan Leow: “Mark is a proven coach but he only has a few months to work with these guys and probably didn’t have a lot of input into their selection.

“It’s a mixed squad. There aren’t any star names, a few guys with international experience. They might struggle, which is normal for first-year teams.

“But given this is the first time we’re having a Super Rugby team play here, I’m sure there will be strong interest and the rugby community here will come out to watch the matches.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2015, with the headline 'Sunwolves all set for kick-off'. Print Edition | Subscribe