Rugby: Sunwolves open final Super Rugby season with shock win over the Rebels

Naoto Saito of the Sunwolves celebrates after their 36-27 victory over the Melbourne Rebels. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan's Sunwolves opened their final season in Super Rugby with a bang on Saturday (Feb 1), running in five tries for a deserved 36-27 victory over the Melbourne Rebels in Fukuoka.

The departure of the Sunwolves at the end of the 2020 season had already been rubber stamped before the success of last year's World Cup in Japan, which captivated the host nation.

Shorn of the Brave Blossoms players who took Japan to the quarter-finals for the first time at that tournament, a new Sunwolves team of international journeymen and unproven youngsters had been thrown together over the last few weeks.

They still dominated the error-prone visitors, however, and led 27-13 when Australian winger James Dargaville returned an Andrew Kellaway chip kick 50 metres to touch down just after half-time.

The Rebels, with a string of Wallabies in their backline, went for broke to try and get back into the contest but the hastily constructed Sunwolves defensive system did enough for the home side to pull off the victory.

It was only the ninth victory in 62 matches over five years for the Sunwolves and the first in the opening round of the season.

"We assembled four weeks ago and to put in that effort today was unbelievable," said Sunwolves No. 8 Jake Schatz, another Australian.

"It showed that we wanted to play for each other, it was unbelievable. Everyone just dug in, showed some heart."

The decision to axe the Sunwolves was made in March last year after the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) said they were unable to underwrite tens of millions of dollars in costs previously borne by the southern hemisphere nations.

The decision looks increasingly like a major blunder for a game desperate to expand beyond its traditional heartlands after the huge success of Asia's first World Cup.

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