The Sunwolves head into the Super Rugby offseason, knowing there is still a lot to do if they are to remain in the competition, let alone be a force to be reckoned with.
SANZAAR – the body that runs Southern Hemisphere rugby – have made it very clear that a number of areas both on and off the field need to be improved.
But as they showed in Round 17 in front of another good crowd in Tokyo, when things go right, Filo Tiatia’s side have plenty to offer the competition.
Sunwolves Vs Blues
The Sunwolves did what no Australian side was able to do all year as they saved the best for last, wrapping up a difficult second Super Rugby season with a comprehensive 48-21 win over the Blues.
A superb second half that saw the Sunwolves score 34 unanswered points at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground was in marked contrast to how they started the season when they were beaten 83-17 by the Hurricanes.
“That’s one of the best performances I have seen from this team,” said Tiatia, who was assistant coach in the team’s debut season.
“We were resilient and competitive for the full 80 minutes. It was a great spectacle and the way we defended allowed us to create pressure and score some enterprising tries, which is difficult to do against a good side like the Blues.”
The victory was the second for Tiatia and his side, following their 21-20 win over the Bulls in Tokyo in April.
And it came at a time when some – particularly observers overseas – were still questioning whether the Sunwolves are worthy of a place in the competition, as it gets reduced to 15 teams from next year.
The Sunwolves’ two games prior to playing the Blues had seen them lose 94-7 and 52-15 to the Lions and Stormers, respectively.
“It just speaks volumes of the players,” said Tiatia. “We were put under the pump (in South Africa). But we got a lot of learnings from a team and leadership perspective.
“We changed the game plan a little today and tried to hold onto the ball longer. We wanted the players to express themselves when they had the opportunity and many of the tries we got were from pressure and the excitement when we did not have the ball.”
Blues coach Tana Umaga
who played alongside Tiatia at club , Super and test-match level – agreed.
“I have to congratulate the Sunwolves,” he said. “They deserved the win and they won well. They showed great fortitude after (two big losses) in South Africa.”And there lies the Sunwolves biggest problem – consistency.
Injuries, and a need to manage how many games the top Japanese players play saw the team use 52 players during the course of the season. And with the team averaging half-a-dozen or so changes every week it took time for combinations to click.
“There were times when we came to camp and had a completely new bunch of players to introduce the game plan to,” one player told Asia Rugby.
Willie Britz, who was named the team’s Players’ Player of the Year probably summed things up best of all.“We have played some flipping good rugby and are certainly better than we were last year.”
Sunwolves to play in the Australia Conference
Next year, the side is set to play in the Australia Conference, which will ensure a lot less travelling.
There is also talk of playing more home games in Tokyo (rather than Singapore) – a reward for the tremendous support the team have had in the Japanese capital where the average crowd is 13,948.
With the Top League finishing earlier, the side will have more time together before the season starts, though player fatigue will still be a problem with the players going straight from Super Rugby to preseason training camps with their corporate sides.
As SANZAAR have said, there is plenty that needs working on.
But as the Sunwolves showed in the summer heat against the Blues, when they are hot they are really hot. They just need to be like that more often than not.
Story : Rich Freeman
Photo Curtesy: JRFU