Rugby: New Sunwolves coach upbeat despite tougher schedule

Filo Tiatia, at a Tokyo press conference yesterday, replaced his fellow former All Black Mark Hammett as the Sunwolves' head coach. He will focus on recruiting local players to strengthen the squad, in order to develop a strong national side for the
Filo Tiatia, at a Tokyo press conference yesterday, replaced his fellow former All Black Mark Hammett as the Sunwolves' head coach. He will focus on recruiting local players to strengthen the squad, in order to develop a strong national side for the 2019 Rugby World Cup that Japan will host.PHOTO COURTESY OF JSRA

Local flavour key for new Sunwolves coach Tiatia in bid to improve on poor debut season

As humbling as last season was for Super Rugby outfit the Sunwolves, Filo Tiatia was adamant that the Japanese side will return stronger and more battle-hardened for next year's competition.

The first and only Asian franchise in the 18-team league endured a chastising debut campaign, losing 13 of their 15 matches by a combined scoreline of 240-582. Led by former All Black Mark Hammett, they won one and drew the other to finish bottom of the standings.

Hammett has since left to join fellow Super Rugby club the Highlanders, handing over the reins to his assistant and compatriot Tiatia, who signed a two-year deal.

The 45-year-old Tiatia spent six seasons in Super Rugby with the Wellington Hurricanes and played and coached at Japan Top League side Toyota Verblitz for a total of nine years.

That familiarity with local culture, coupled with four months to prepare for the opening tie on Feb 25 against defending Super Rugby champions Hurricanes in Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, has left Tiatia cautiously optimistic.

The coach, who delivered his opening address in Japanese during yesterday's press conference in Tokyo and converses in the language with the players, told The Straits Times in a phone interview: "Continuity always helps and I'm looking to retain a large group from last season.

"It's important that we make a positive start and build from that.

GETTING OFF THE MARK FASTER

Continuity always helps and I'm looking to retain a large group from last season. It's important that we make a positive start and build from that.

FILO TIATIA, Sunwolves coach, stressing continuity in his playing squad for the next Super Rugby campaign.

"I'm expecting everyone to give 100 per cent and we want to try and improve on all fronts."

He will have to do without star fly-half Tusi Pisi, who was the Sunwolves' leading point scorer with 105. The Samoan has joined English Premiership side Bristol and his absence will be a huge loss, admitted Tiatia.

He and the Sunwolves management are in the process of recruiting new players but neither Tiatia nor Japan's newly-appointed head coach Jamie Joseph were keen on filling the roster with foreign mercenaries simply to win a few matches.

Joseph said: "That won't help the national team, which is the purpose of the Sunwolves. We want to develop local players to be ready for the 2019 World Cup (hosted in Japan)."

Part of that training is learning to thrive in difficult conditions. The Sunwolves are co-based in Japan and Singapore, playing four home matches in Tokyo and three at the Singapore Sports Hub (against South African teams Southern Kings on March 4, Stormers on March 25 and Sharks on May 20). They also face away ties in Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand.

They flew more than 80,000km last term and are likely to cover about 110,000km - spending 11 weeks in hotels - for the upcoming season.

It is a gruelling schedule but they will be better prepared this time around, vowed Tiatia.

What they cannot afford is another poor start; the Sunwolves started the 2016 season with seven straight defeats before notching their sole victory against fellow Super Rugby debutants Jaguares in April.

Tiatia was hopeful that fans, particular those in Singapore, would not have to wait that long to witness another victory.

In fact, all three games last season in the Republic were tight affairs (Sunwolves 31 Cheetahs 32, Sunwolves 27 Bulls 30, Sunwolves 17 Stormers 17) with the home side giving up late leads in two of the ties.

Tiatia said: "We love going to Singapore and hopefully we'll be able to give them something to cheer about when we return next year."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2016, with the headline 'Upbeat despite tougher schedule'. Print Edition | Subscribe