Rugby: Sunwolves happy with new pack

Sunwolves' Sam Wykes attempting to wriggle free from a Sharks defender during a Super Rugby game at the National Stadium in May. The physicality of teams in the South African Group last season was something the Asian side - co-based in Tokyo and Sing
Sunwolves' Sam Wykes attempting to wriggle free from a Sharks defender during a Super Rugby game at the National Stadium in May. The physicality of teams in the South African Group last season was something the Asian side - co-based in Tokyo and Singapore - struggled to deal with. The Sunwolves will be in the Australian Conference with four Australian teams next season.ST FILE PHOTO

Super Rugby side believe they will fare better in Australian conference next term

Things are looking up for the Sunwolves as they prepare to feature in the Australian conference of the revamped Super Rugby next year.

Having struggled mightily against the physicality of South African sides in their first two seasons, the Asian side - co-based in Tokyo and Singapore - will be relieved at the prospect of facing fewer of those bruising games next term.

While next season's schedule has yet to be released, Yuji Watase, chief executive officer of Japan Super Rugby Association, believes that the Australian teams will also be more popular in Singapore, where three of the Sunwolves' home games will be played.

He told The Straits Times in a telephone interview from Japan: "The South African community might not be so big in Singapore, but there are more Australians and New Zealanders (here), so that might cause some impact."

South African sides were the Sunwolves' opponents in all six games hosted by the Republic at the National Stadium in Kallang over the past two Super Rugby seasons. Those teams are known for their physicality, using their size to score tries from a rolling maul after a line-out instead of clean breaks.

The Sunwolves won just three matches since they became the first Asian franchise to join the prestigious Southern Hemisphere competition last year.

Despite regularly suffering heavy defeats, they were spared from being axed from the league when it underwent a format revamp for next season.

Perth-based Western Force and South Africa's Cheetahs and the Kings were dropped, as the number of teams was reduced from 18 to 15.

In retaliation, the Force said on Tuesday that they are making plans to start a new six-team Indo-Pacific rugby competition.

Watase acknowledged that a short pre-season did not help the Sunwolves' prospects last season.

They were blown away 17-83 by the Hurricanes in the season opener in February, barely a month after the Japan Rugby Top League season ended.

Ahead of the new campaign, the domestic league will end in late December instead, giving the Sunwolves more time to prepare for the upcoming Super Rugby season.

A long injury list also took its toll late in the season.

Said Watase: "The South African tour in July (when they were thrashed 94-7 by the Lions and 52-15 by the Stormers) was terrible. But when we went there in March (when they lost 31-38 to the Cheetahs and 21-34 to the Bulls), we were doing well.

"Because of having too many injuries, we have to field some new players. It's difficult to maintain the quality of their game if we keep rotating the players.

"Japanese players are not so strong physically. We care a lot about our combinations, which are crucial to us.

"If the players keep changing, they tend to lose their confidence before the games. We shouldn't do too much rotation next season."

The Sunwolves handed debuts to 24 players last season, but Watase hopes it will be a far more settled squad this time around.

He also hopes that last season's debutants will also be good enough so that they can ease the burden on the senior players.

He added: "Next season, we have to focus more. Young stars like Yusuke Niwai (25) and Kenki Fukuoka (24) are now part of the core members of the team."

Statistics have shown that they are improving, albeit slightly. They scored 41 tries compared to 33 scored in their maiden season last year. They have also won two matches this year, compared to just one last year.

Nevertheless, their honeymoon period in Super Rugby is over, and Watase is eager to justify their continued presence in the league.

He said: "In the first year, we learnt how difficult the tour was, we had to travel to South Africa and it's our first time playing against New Zealand teams. Second year was tough too.

"But we are confident that we can do much better next year."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2017, with the headline 'Sunwolves happy with new pack'. Print Edition | Subscribe