The hopes of a nation, and possibly a continent, rest on the shoulders of the 15 men selected to start for the Sunwolves in today's Super Rugby clash against the Lions of South Africa.
The Japanese team may have been hastily assembled and had less-than-ideal preparation but that has done little to temper expectations within the franchise, the first from Asia in the newly-expanded 18-team league.
Team director Shogo Tanaka, whose full squad trained together for the first time only on Feb 3, told The Straits Times: "A successful Sunwolves will be critical for building interest in rugby in Japan. It is a big responsibility for us."
As the first Asian hosts of the next Rugby World Cup in 2019, Japan, who stunned two-time champions South Africa in last year's edition, have also become the focal point for growing the game in the region.
A full house is expected for this afternoon's curtain-raiser to the season at Tokyo's 27,000-seat Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium.
THE BIG-PICTURE VIEW
A successful Sunwolves will be critical for building interest in rugby in Japan. It is a big responsibility for us.
SHOGO TANAKA, Sunwolves team director, on the importance of the team having a good Super Rugby debut season.
The Sunwolves will be co-based in Singapore and they will make their Kallang bow on March 12 against South Africa's Cheetahs before clashes against three-time champions Bulls (March 26) and Stormers (May 14) at the National Stadium.
Said Tanaka: "We are representing not just Japan and Singapore but the whole of Asia. Hopefully we can do well and be an example for other teams in Asia to come on board in the future."
LOOKING BEYOND TACTICS
Every game, we need to think about what works and try to work well together. Tackle strongly and (have) good communication.
SHOTA HORIE, Sunwolves hooker, on the team's approach to each Super Rugby match.
Observers, however, are expecting this maiden campaign to be a bumpy one for the Sunwolves. The squad lack marquee names - leading local players like full-back Ayumu Goromaru (Queensland Reds), winger Male Sa'u (Auckland Blues) and national captain Michael Leitch (Waikato Chiefs) all joined foreign clubs - while coach Mark Hammett's training time with his players has been disrupted by various issues.
The former All Black has been on compassionate leave since last Friday following the death of his mother but is expected to return for the clash against the Lions.
In their only warm-up fixture on Feb 13, the Sunwolves defeated a domestic selection side 52-24. They were captained by veteran hooker Shota Horie (one of only seven players with Super Rugby experience in the 39-man squad), who was aided by ex-Reds back-row forward Ed Quirk and Samoa fly-half Tusi Pisi.
However, bigger tests lie ahead, with nine of their 15 regular-season matches against South African teams known for their physicality.
Said Tanaka: "We have to play smart and quick rugby and use the width of the field against the South African teams. They're big boys and we're not going to be able to hit through them."
Another concern will be a gruelling schedule that will see them cover 80,277km - or around 113 hours of flight time - during the season that includes a three-week road trip in South Africa with trips to Singapore and Australia as well.
In total, they will be away from Tokyo for 83 days out of 140 and 15 of their flights will be longer than seven hours in duration
Fatigue could be a factor over the course of the five-month competition, admitted Tanaka. "But we see this as a positive challenge," he added. "It will allow the players and coaching staff to spend more time together and create that family spirit within the team."
And nothing will galvanise the team - and the country - like an opening-day victory.
Said Horie at yesterday's press conference: "A win is the first step. The team have been getting better. Every game, we need to think about what works and try to work well together. Tackle strongly and (have) good communication.
"We would like to show how much we can do that tomorrow."
SUNWOLVES V LIONS
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