TOKYO (REUTERS) - With the eyes of the rugby world turning to Japan and with their future in Super Rugby hanging in the balance, the Sunwolves enter the 2019 season under unparalleled pressure.
In the year that Japan hosts the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the Tokyo-based team, who also play some matches in Singapore, are entering their fourth season in Super Rugby having won only six of their previous 46 matches.
Sanzaar, Super Rugby's governing body, will meet in March to plan the competition's future from 2021 with suggestions the Sunwolves may be dumped if the number of teams is reduced.
A few early wins before that meeting would go a long way to persuading the powers that be that Japan deserve a Super Rugby team beyond the Rugby World Cup in September.
With former coach Jamie Joseph stepping aside to focus on Japan's preparations for the World Cup, his assistant Tony Brown will lead the Sunwolves in 2019 looking for those early positive results.
The former All Blacks fly-half, who assisted Joseph at the Otago Highlanders before he succeeded his former team-mate in Dunedin, brings a swathe of experience to a team who include many of the Japanese players who will be at the World Cup.
Japan captain Michael Leitch is joined by standouts in fly-half Yu Tamura, winger Lomano Lemeki and hooker Shota Horie in the side while Hayden Parker, who scored 136 points for the Sunwolves last season, returns at fly-half.
How Brown juggles Parker and Tamura, who starts at No. 10 for Japan, will be one of the storylines to follow during the season and may reflect whether Japanese rugby sees the Sunwolves as a standalone side or as a pathway for the national team.
A late addition to the squad is 37-year-old Luke Thompson, who helped Japan to a famous win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, while lightning-quick winger Kenki Fukuoka looks set to be the man most likely to worry opposition defences.
The 26-year-old showed his threat when Japan played New Zealand last November, so fans of Super Rugby will be intrigued to see more of him in the coming months.
Improving their consistency and defence will be key to their success this year after leaking more than 40 points per game in 2018.
The Sunwolves begin their Super Rugby campaign against the Sharks on Feb 16 (Saturday) in Singapore before hosting the New South Wales Waratahs in Tokyo a week later.