The Sunwolves picked up their first Super Rugby win of 2017 on Saturday, beating three-time champions the Bulls 21-20 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
A much-improved defensive effort and some real impact from the bench saw head coach Filo Tiatia’s side beat a South African team for the first time and give Japan’s franchise a real boost ahead of a four-week tour to New Zealand and Argentina.
It also proved the side are quick learners.
Three weeks ago in Pretoria, the Sunwolves failed to make the most of a red card to the Bulls. But this time around a yellow card to Jan Serfontein in the 68th proved to be the decisive moment.
Takaaki Nakazuru made the most of a great long pass from Yu Tamura two minutes after the Bulls center began his spell in the naughty chair, before Tamura added the conversion and penalty as the Sunwolves scored 10 points against 14 men.
It could, however, still have been a heartbreaking loss if Francois Brummer had been on target with a penalty three minutes from time.
“We had reviewed the previous games and noticed that we were giving points away in the last 20 minutes,” Tiatia said.
“So we talked about our reserves keeping calm, driving the game plan and raising the energy, and the players that came on contributed well.”
His Bulls counterpart, Nollis Marais, said the card had proved the difference, but praised the Sunwolves for their approach.
“When we were down to 14 we knew we were in trouble. It’s always difficult to defend with 14 and what was good for us last time, was bad for us this time,” he said. “But congratulations to the Sunwolves for a well-deserved win.”
The Sunwolves had sprinted out of the blocks with Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco marking his Super Rugby debut with a try after in the sixth minute.
A penalty from Hayden Cripps extended the lead before Burger Odendaal made the most of one of the few errors by the Sunwolves defense as he crossed directly from a line-out.
Tiaan Schoeman added the extras and then exchanged penalties with Cripps as the Sunwolves went into the break leading 11-10.
“Tactically we were not good enough especially in the first half,” rued Bulls captain Adriaan Strauss, who was part of the Springbok team that lost to Japan at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The second half started with the Bulls’ big forwards gaining the upper hand and Schoeman added a penalty before converting an opportunist try by Travis Ismaiel.
But the increased depth of the Sunwolves squad ensured that — unlike last year when the bench was more damage control than impact — it was the home side that finished strongest.
With Tamura and Yuki Yatomi controlling things at halfback, the Sunwolves started to stretch the Bulls defense and Nakazuru’s try ensured the closing moments were played out to a cacophony of noise and chewed fingernails.
“We made less mistakes,” was Sunwolves captain Timothy Lafaele’s short and sweet response when asked the reason for the win.
Marais, meanwhile, was left to rue what might have been.
“The Sunwolves defended well and put us under pressure and that led to handling errors. They rushed us into making mistakes and we panicked at the end.”