The Sunwolves’ Super Rugby experiment was doomed never to blossom
Poor results, a shaky brand and lack of support for the concept at home were among the factors against them
The old saying goes that the road to ruin is paved with good intentions. It’s certainly appropriate in the case of the Sunwolves’ miserable inclusion in Super Rugby.
The experiment will mercifully come to an end after 2020, which will be the Japanese franchise’s fifth and final season in the southern hemisphere’s premier club competition.
Sanzaar, the body that runs Super Rugby, had good intentions to grow their own competition and coffers when they included the Sunwolves in 2016.
Super Rugby inclusion was also supposed to assist in growing the sport in the years leading up to Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan. Japanese audiences and sponsors were supposed to be wowed by Super Rugby, and back rugby through support and money for the Japanese team. Neither has happened.
Japan had just beaten the Springboks at RWC 2015 and there was a real buzz about the potential of an Asian team in Super Rugby. The momentum the Brave Blossoms gathered in England in 2015 was supposed to carry over into an elite club competition. They stalled on the line.
From the outset the Sunwolves concept was plagued by problems and the goodwill generated by the Japanese national team quickly gave way to the politics of professional club rugby.
The Sunwolves only named Mark Hammett as coach in January 2016, a month before their first fixture in Super Rugby.
RWC star fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who scored 24 points during the Brave Blossoms’ historic 34-32 win over the Boks in Brighton, signed for the Reds. Scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka stayed on at the Highlanders and Japan captain Michael Leitch did the same at the Chiefs.
It was a blow to the fledgling team that Japan’s three brightest stars snubbed the Sunwolves. It was an ominous start and one they never fully recovered from.
Playing home games in Tokyo and Singapore (they also played one game in Hong Kong), while in theory was about expanding the game in Asia, actually weakened the team’s brand and commercial potential. There was confusion about what and who the Sunwolves represented.
That confusion extended to the playing roster, which essentially became a collection of Super Rugby journeymen from SA, New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands. In recent rounds of Super Rugby there have been fewer than 10 Japanese Test players in the Sunwolves’ match-day 23.
The cost and time of sending teams to fulfil fixtures in Japan and Singapore, and the funding of the entire Sunwolves organisation, became prohibitive.
Japan has a thriving and lucrative club league backed by huge corporations, but that money failed to filter upwards to the Super Rugby franchise. There was constant friction between the Top League clubs and the needs of the Sunwolves.
Another thread of discord was over the voting process for Rugby World Cup 2023. Sanzaar agreed, in line with what all nations agreed, that its members would vote for the “preferred bidder” announced by World Rugby at the end of its evaluation process.
In the event, World Rugby named SA as the preferred bid over France and Ireland. SA, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina duly cast their votes for SA to host RWC 2023. Japan went with France.
It was a horrible slap in the face for SA, which had played its part in giving Japanese rugby a seat at Super Rugby’s table. When the time came for Sanzaar to decide whether to continue supporting the Sunwolves’ place in Super Rugby, naturally SA wasn’t interested.
But the larger picture also came down to the Sunwolves as a competitive team in Super Rugby and a viable pathway for Japanese rugby, and players, to develop.
On the latter point the Sunwolves certainly have not boosted the Brave Blossoms as much as hoped because the majority of its players are not Japanese nationals.
In terms of competitiveness the Sunwolves’ results have been woeful and after three-and-a-half seasons in Super Rugby, they have won only seven of 52 games.
The Sunwolves might argue there has been progress every year. They won one game in 2016, two in 2017 and three in 2018. This year they are one from five after an historic 30-15 win over the Chiefs in round three. But in reality it hasn’t been significant development at all.
It was an experiment that failed for many reasons. There wasn’t enough support or the concept and Sanzaar were perhaps too hasty in their quest for expansion. Where this leaves Asian rugby is a moot point because it’s debatable whether the Sunwolves actually enhanced it in any meaningful way.
The journey is nearly at an end. Sayonara Sunwolves.