Sunwolves stay positive despite steep learning curve

17 May


The Sunwolves may have won only one game out of 10 so far this season, but Japan’s Super Rugby team is confident that its efforts will pay off somewhere down the line.

“For us it’s about focusing on the process rather than just results,” second-row forward Sam Wykes told The Japan Times at the Sunwolves’ training camp in Tokyo this week. “If we keep preparing for how we want to play, the result is irrelevant for us. If we keep focusing on the wins and losses, that’s when you really start to get bogged down.

“This group seems to shake it off pretty well. Monday is a fresh start to go again.”

The Sunwolves made a brief stop in Tokyo this week before setting off to play South Africa’s Sharks on Saturday in Singapore, where the team plays three “home” games this season along with four at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.

The Sunwolves made their Super Rugby debut last season and suffered a baptism of fire in the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club tournament, winning one game, drawing one and losing 13.

The Japanese side has fared little better so far this year, with a 21-20 win over South Africa’s Bulls in Tokyo on April 8 the Sunwolves’ lone success. A number of impressive performances and narrow defeats have, however, given them hope for the rest of the season.

“We’ve got one win but we still haven’t managed to get a second, so it’s been a so-so season up until now,” said hooker Shota Horie, a national team regular. “But we’ve still got games to play and we’ll see what kind of performances we can give. We’ve got a lot of young players picking up good experience ahead of the 2019 World Cup, so we want to make it a good season in that respect.”

The Sunwolves’ debut season last year was marred by chaotic preparations that saw several stars of Japan’s 2015 World Cup campaign snub their advances to sign with other Super Rugby sides.

The team then underwent further changes ahead of the 2017 season, with head coach Mark Hammett being replaced by assistant Filo Tiatia and a host of new players coming in to give the Sunwolves a massive 53-man squad.

“The squad is bigger than last year and that makes it more difficult to communicate,” said fly half Yu Tamura. “But I think we’ve kept the good style that we had last year. We’ve got good players and a good coach.

“We’re very good in attack, and we’re gradually improving on our weak points. We’re a good, aggressive team.”

Making life difficult for the Sunwolves, however, is a playing schedule that forces them to fly almost 120,000 km over the course of a season, with away games in South Africa, Australia and Argentina on top of the trips to Singapore.

Recently announced changes to next season’s Super Rugby format — which culled three teams from South Africa and Australia but spared the Sunwolves — will reduce the amount of traveling, but Wykes insists that the players are taking it all in their stride.

“It’s not talked about too much,” said the Australian, who is in his first season with the Sunwolves. “We know it’s tough, but it’s not talked about. So if no one’s really talking about it, it doesn’t really affect us.

“We’re not complaining. We’re more grateful that you get to travel around the world and do what you get to do for a living and just enjoy it.”

The Sunwolves will have their work cut out this weekend against the Durban-based Sharks, who have won seven, drawn one and lost three games this season.

The Sunwolves welcome back co-captain Harumichi Tatekawa after the fly half missed the start of the season through injury and national team duty, and the 27-year-old admits he is returning to a changed landscape.

“There are a lot of players who I played with here last year and on the national team, so I don’t feel uncomfortable,” said Tatekawa. “But there are also new players, so I have to get used to playing with them and communicating with them. We still have time before the game, so hopefully we can build it up a little more.

“I played in the Asia Rugby Championship so I’ve got my feel for the game back, but I still have to be able to perform at the Super Rugby level. I’m sure that I’ll be a little taken aback by it at first but you have to get into the game to get used to it.”

Saturday’s match also marks the Sunwolves’ first outing since the draw for the 2019 World Cup was made last Wednesday in Kyoto. Host nation Japan was paired in Pool A with Ireland, Scotland, a European qualifier and the winner of the qualifying playoff.

The Sunwolves’ entry into Super Rugby is a major component in Japanese rugby’s drive to improve before the World Cup kicks off on Sept. 20, 2019, with the national team also set to take on several of the world’s top teams over the next 2½ years.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” said Tamura. “I’m just happy that I’m able to play in big games against strong opponents. I think it will make me a better player and that’s a good thing.

“I do feel some nerves, but if you keep playing tough games every week rather than just playing against weak opponents, it benefits you. I’m not scared of failure.”

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