Rugby: Sunwolves coach proud of fighting spirit despite Super Rugby opening day loss

The Sunwolves' Akihito Yamada tackling the Lions' Jaco van der Walt yesterday in their Super Rugby opener in Tokyo. Despite a 26-13 defeat, the Japanese debutants acquitted themselves well.
The Sunwolves' Akihito Yamada tackling the Lions' Jaco van der Walt yesterday in their Super Rugby opener in Tokyo. Despite a 26-13 defeat, the Japanese debutants acquitted themselves well.PHOTO: REUTERS

Their Super Rugby debut may have ended in a home defeat, but there were enough positives for the Sunwolves to believe that life in the big leagues is not as intimidating as once feared.

The first Asian franchise in the newly expanded league lost 13-26 yesterday to the Lions of South Africa but left the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium in Tokyo with their reputation intact.

Coach Mark Hammett, who was on bereavement leave following his mother's death last week and returned to Japan only on Friday, was pleased with his players' effort.

"We can always handle losing if we know the players have given everything, so I'm very proud," said the former All Black.

"No doubt, at times we had to scramble, but our bravery was a real positive to work on."

The 25,000-strong local crowd had plenty to cheer about from as early as the third minute, when a penalty from Samaon fly-half Tusi Pisi gave the hosts a shock lead.

The visitors were sloppy in the early exchanges with fly-half Elton Jantjies guilty of two missed chances, before hooker Robbie Coetzee scored a try from a rolling maul to give the Lions a lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the match.

Winger Courtnall Skosan added a second try before another Pisi penalty sent the Sunwolves into the half-time break trailing 6-12.

Despite the Lions scoring their third try a minute after the restart through flanker Jaco Kriel, the Sunwolves refused to quit and hooker Shota Horie barged over for his team's first Super Rugby try in the 61st minute to make it a six-point game once more at 13-19.

There was no fairy tale though as Pisi's yellow card with 15 minutes left gave the Lions the numerical advantage, and a fourth try - which earned them a bonus point - from Lionel Mapoe settled the game.

Said Sunwolves skipper Horie: "It was nice to score our first try but I didn't do anything special. I was lucky the ball just popped up for me just before the try line."

With tougher challenges ahead in the five-month competition, Hammett noted that his team cannot depend only on fortunate bounces.

Said the former Hurricanes coach: "One thing we have to get used to as a new team is that we won't always get the rub of the green. But we have to get used to that and keep playing our game."

The Sunwolves, co-based in Singapore, have a bye in the next round and will face another South African side, the Cheetahs, at the National Stadium on March 12. And Horie vowed: "We will get better."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Sunwolves coach proud of fighting spirit in loss'. Print Edition | Subscribe