Rugby: Sunwolves cull to scatter 'United Nations' players

Sunwolves players (in red) in action against Australia's Queensland Reds at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, in Tokyo, Japan, on March 16, 2019.
Sunwolves players (in red) in action against Australia's Queensland Reds at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, in Tokyo, Japan, on March 16, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - The expected cull of the Tokyo-based Sunwolves from Super Rugby not only shapes as a setback for Japanese rugby in the year the country hosts the World Cup but also a blow for the 'United Nations' of players that have found homes at the team.

No less than 13 of the starting 15 who were edged by the Queensland Reds on Saturday were born outside of Japan, with six New Zealanders, four Tongans, two Australians and one South African.

The team's cosmopolitan flavour also extended to the bench where hooker Jaba Bregvadze, capped 54 times for Georgia, sat along with Fijian outside back Semisi Masirewa and Tonga-born prop Asaeli Ai Valu, a Japan international.

Their coaching arrangements underline the dominance of world champions New Zealand in global rugby, with All Black Tony Brown guiding the side in the absence of his compatriot and regular boss Jamie Joseph, who is focusing on his international job with the Japan team.

The staff and players' futures have been thrown into doubt, with Super Rugby's governing body Sanzaar expected to confirm the Sunwolves' axing from the mainly southern hemisphere competition on Friday (March 22).

Media reports, citing Japanese rugby union sources, say they will be given one more season after this year, but only as a matter of expediency to serve out a five-year broadcasting deal which expires at the end of 2020.

The timing could hardly be more grievous for global governing body World Rugby, who have preached a message of inclusion for emerging rugby nations ahead of the first World Cup in Asia starting in September.

In the Sunwolves' change-rooms, however, the cull will hit hard for a playing group that has begun to find its feet in their fourth season since joining in 2016.

"We definitely feel like we belong," inside centre Michael Little, the son of 50-cap All Blacks midfielder Walter Little, told New Zealand media after the Sunwolves' loss to the Auckland Blues earlier this month.

"Otherwise I wouldn't be playing Super Rugby. They've given me an opportunity and likewise with a lot of other boys.

"We've just had our first Georgia cap (Bregvadze), we've got South African boys, Australians, a lot of (Pacific) Islanders ... we come together as the Sunwolves family, and everyone is just grateful to be here."

While the players see strength in diversity, the heavy representation of expatriates has been an awkward look for Japan's first Super Rugby team.

Sanzaar bosses touted the Sunwolves as a vehicle to promote the game in the leadup to the World Cup and an important pathway for local players into the national team.

Yet many of Japan's top talents, who are also signed to company teams in the domestic Top League, have been restricted from playing for the Sunwolves and diverted into extended training camps with the national squad.

The expatriate-heavy side has battled to be competitive against established opponents from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, managing only a total of seven wins in the competition to date.

A heavy burden of travel has hardly helped, with the Sunwolves forced to play a few 'home' games in Singapore every season to placate South African teams' complaints about their own long-haul flights.

But they have improved every year and claimed their first win away from home against New Zealand's Waikato Chiefs three weeks ago.

Enthusiastic crowds of 15,000 regularly turn up to their home Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, even if only to cheer mostly journeymen players from New Zealand and Pacific islands.

The Sunwolves have fewer fans overseas and may not be greatly missed by South Africa, where the local broadcaster is unimpressed by the ratings generated by their matches, according to media reports.

Australia and New Zealand's teams, which have signed sponsorship deals with Japanese companies, may be more upset to see them go.

"It's never nice to hear that a team is going to be axed," Christian Lealiifano, captain of the Canberra-based Brumbies, told local media on Thursday.

"You're always wanting to be growing our game, not only in our country, but globally."