Decision to axe the Sunwolves was ‘premature’
JOHANNESBURG – The Sunwolves didn’t stand a chance. They were up against it before they played their first match and it’s thus no surprise that in just under five seasons in Super Rugby they managed to register only nine wins from 68 matches.
That’s according to two men who have played regularly for the Sunwolves over the last few years and who are familiar to South Africans – Japan lock Wimpie van der Walt and prop Hencus van Wyk.
Both players, who are back in South Africa with their families, also said the decision to cut the Sunwolves from Super Rugby from next season was “premature” and that given a little more time and investment the Japan-based team could have become a factor.
But now, with sport across the globe halted and Super Rugby suspended - with the Sunwolves having played just six games in the 2020 competition - it is looking increasingly likely that the newest team to feature in the tournament have played their last game. If Super Rugby doesn’t start up again because of the spread of the coronavirus the “experiment” of the Sunwolves will be over.
It has been a rocky few years for the team, who played out of Tokyo and Singapore and who had a huge following, in Japan especially, but never won enough to warrant their continued presence in the competition. With Super Rugby set for a new course from next year, the Sunwolves were chopped from the competition by the organisers - their record of nine wins from 68 matches not deemed good enough.
In 2016 - their first season in the big time - they won one of 15 matches; the next year they made it two wins from 15, and in 2018 and 2019 they won three and two times respectively. This year they won once from six before the competition was suspended.
Both Van der Walt and Van Wyk expressed their disappointment that the Sunwolves hadn’t been treated better, and given a fair chance, over the last few years.
“We never had enough time to prepare for the season,” lamented prop Van Wyk.
“Because of the domestic competition, the Top League, running into mid-January, the Sunwolves have never had a proper pre-season. The guys would play Top League, have a few weeks off and go straight into one of the toughest and most demanding competitions in the world.
“There has never been enough time for us to freshen up, train, plan and prepare.”
There were other issues that ensured the Sunwolves had their backs to the wall from the off. One is that they were asked to travel far more extensively than the other teams. “The travel aspect is massive,” said Van Wyk. “We travelled somewhere different almost every week, lived out of a suitcase and spent most of our time in hotels. Jet lag was real, all the time, and because of all the travelling, our weeks were shorter, too. There was never enough time to rest and recover logistically, everything worked against the Sunwolves.”
It also didn’t help, according to Van der Walt, who featured for Japan at last year’s World Cup, that the Sunwolves had a new man in charge every season. In 2016 Mark Hammett coached the team, and he was followed in 2017 by Filo Tiatia and in 2018 by Jamie Joseph. In 2019, Tony Brown took charge and this year Naoya Okubo was at the helm.
“Having a new coach every year didn’t help,” said Van der Walt.
Van Wyk added: “Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown are two of the best coaches I’ve worked with but there was just never any continuity. And besides having to work with new coaches, the squad make-up also changed almost every season.”
Several South Africans featured for the Sunwolves over the years, starting with fullback Riaan Viljoen in 2016 and continuing with the likes of Willie Britz, Gerhard van den Heever, Grant Hattingh, Shane Gates, Lappies Labuschagne (who also captained Japan at the World Cup in 2019) and this year JJ Engelbrecht, Rudy Paige and Garth April.
Van der Walt and Van Wyk both said they would have liked to see the Sunwolves remain a part of Super Rugby beyond this year.
“With Japan doing so well at the World Cup it would have been good to see the Sunwolves play on and gain more experience,” said Van der Walt. “The support of rugby in Japan is amazing and hopefully the authorities will pump more money into the Top League and improve the quality. But, to be honest, I’m not going to miss all the travelling.”
Van Wyk said it was “premature” to axe his team from Super Rugby. “I’m sad to see the Sunwolves go. The Japanese fans are the best I’ve encountered and they love their rugby they support one through thick and thin. Rugby is growing in Japan and the World Cup last year gave it a big boost.
“I’ve loved every minute of my three years with the Sunwolves. I’ve made life-long friendships, and real brotherhoods have been formed, and I’ve learned so much about myself and life. It’s been wonderful but I won’t miss the travel and living in a hotel.”
Van Wyk, who previously played for the Bulls and Lions, said he was unsure where he would be playing his rugby next year, while Van der Walt will go into his sixth straight season with the Red Hurricanes in the Top League.