Rugby: Axe falls on Japan's Sunwolves, six months before World Cup

The Sunwolves' Uwe Helu (centre) and teammates look dejected after the final whistle in the Super Rugby match between New Zealand's Blues and Japan's Sunwolves at the QBE Stadium in Auckland on March 9, 2019.
The Sunwolves' Uwe Helu (centre) and teammates look dejected after the final whistle in the Super Rugby match between New Zealand's Blues and Japan's Sunwolves at the QBE Stadium in Auckland on March 9, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Japan's Sunwolves will be axed from Super Rugby after next season, the governing body said on Friday (March 22), dealing a heavy blow to Asian rugby just six months before Japan hosts the continent's first World Cup.

The Sunwolves were introduced in 2016 to bring rugby to new markets, but Sanzaar said it was not prepared to bankroll the perennial wooden-spooners after Japan's rugby board withdrew financial support.

The globe-trotting competition will return to 14 teams and a round-robin format from 2021, scrapping the unpopular conference system, Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) said.

Sanzaar chief Andy Marinos said the Sunwolves decision was "not taken lightly", and held open the possibility of a Super Rugby Asia-Pacific competition also involving Pacific nations, the Americas and Hong Kong.

"Sanzaar was advised by the Japan Rugby Football Union in early March that they would no longer be in a position to financially underwrite the Sunwolves' future participation post 2020," Marinos said in a statement.

Reports say much of the opposition to Asia's first Super Rugby team came from South Africa, whose teams disliked the long trips to Tokyo and Singapore for the Sunwolves' home games.

Japan's Kyodo news agency said Sanzaar had told the Sunwolves to pay a "non-negotiable" participation fee of about 1 billion yen (S$12 million) a year to stay in Super Rugby.

The Tokyo-based team were introduced with great fanfare along with Argentina's Jaguares in 2016 as Super Rugby, seeking new audiences, expanded to 18 teams.

 

Both teams survived a cull when the tournament shrank back to 15 sides in 2018, after the sprawling, time zone-hopping new format proved unwieldy for teams and fans.

But results on the pitch were slow in coming for the Sunwolves, who were embarrassed 92-17 by the Cheetahs in their first season - before winning a breakthrough first victory, against the Jaguares, the following week.

Two more wins followed in 2017, improving to three in 2018, but with a litany of heavy defeats along the way, including a 94-7 hiding by the Lions in 2017.

Now in their fourth season, they won away for the first time earlier this month, beating the Waikato Chiefs 30-15 for just their seventh win in 51 games.

The Sunwolves have also faced criticism about the number of non-Japanese in their team, raising questions over their core mission to develop home-grown players.

Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle said it had come down to a decision about the "financial sustainability for our Super Rugby franchises".

"The reality is that as much as we see Japan as being an incredibly important part of the future of rugby, when the JFA withdrew their underwriting support for the Sunwolves... it left the Sanzaar partners in an exposed position financially," she said in Sydney.

"We didn't think that was in the best interests of the Sanzaar partnership," added Castle, who said keeping the Sunwolves afloat involved millions of dollars.

However, players expressed concern about the move.

"You're always wanting to be growing our game, not only in our country, but globally," ACT Brumbies captain Christian Lealiifano said.

"I think they've been a team that has been continually growing and being a threat in this competition. They're not easybeats anymore."