The Sunwolves start their fifth and final season in Super Rugby in a familiar position – with yet another new head coach.
Naoya Okubo, a former director of rugby at Top League club Suntory Sungoliath, follows in the footsteps of Mark Hammett, Filo Tiatia, Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, and he does so with a squad that looks very different from past editions. With the Super Rugby season running at the same time as the Top League, many of Japan’s best players will be unavailable to the Japanese franchise, which opens its campaign on 1 February in Fukuoka – one of its four ‘home grounds’ – against the Melbourne Rebels.
As of mid-December, the Sunwolves had just 24 players on their roster, with Springboks Rudy Paige and JJ Engelbrecht, former England international Ben Te’o and returning Georgia hooker Jaba Bregvadze heading the list of players who have committed to the team.
Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase remains hopeful some of the players who played for Japan at the Rugby World Cup will join once the contract negotiations have been completed, but so far the Panasonic Wild Knights are the only top-flight side that have released any players, and none of the four who have signed on featured in Japan’s squad.
Waseda University captain Naoto Saito and Tenri University centre Siosaia Fifita represent the new generation but much needs to be done if the team is to live up to the hopes of Japan’s national coach.
‘For our national team to keep on challenging the next level we need to develop the next generation of Japanese players and work together,’ said Joseph.
In addition to the game in Fukuoka, the Sunwolves will play home games in Osaka, Tokyo and Singapore as they look to build on the momentum – both on and off the field – created by the Brave Blossoms’ run at the World Cup. But it could be a tough ask.