Multiple outlets are today reporting that Japan’s Super Rugby franchise – the Sunwolves – will be axed from the competition.
SportTalk NZ reports that SANZAAR will issue a statement on the ‘future of Super Rugby’ at 2pm (AEDT) on Friday.
Despite perennial poor play from the lone Asian side, no credible threats to their survivability appeared to exist until today’s shock news.
Given Japan is hosting the Rugby World Cup later this year, as well as the current Super Rugby broadcast deal running until 2020, the news comes at a curious time for the game.
While reports are conflicting as to when the removal will take place at a later date, The Daily Telegraph’s Jamie Pandaram originally reported the club would be axed at the end of the season, with next year seeing the competition reduced to 14 teams and the conference system also dumped.
But now he, as well as other outlets, claim the Sunwolves will depart once the current broadcast deal expires in 2020.
How the team will manage to play out this season and all of next season in the knowledge they’re set to be axed remains unclear.
Neither SANZAAR nor the club have made any comment on today’s news, although Pandaram reports that the players and officials learned of their fate last night.
There are also no reports as to whether SANZAAR is looking at bringing a previous axed club back to take the Sunwolves place. Given News Corp is reporting broadcasters are excited at the prospect of a simplified format, however, that appears unlikely for the time being.
Reports as to the official reasoning behind the club’s axing, are surprisingly unrelated to the team’s poor onfield results.
The Daily Telegraph reports South Africa’s sides had always been opposed to travelling to Asia for games and were unhappy with being asked to support the Japanese side financially – as all Super Rugby sides do.
With no long term backers coming from Japan, South Africa reportedly threatened to take a larger share of the Super Rugby broadcast rights if Australian and New Zealand insisted on propping up the Sunwolves.
Additionally, The Australian reports the Sunwolves objected to new financial terms SANZAAR was attempting to impose on them – including an allegedly club-exclusive ‘Super Rugby participation fee’.
With much of Japan Rugby’s revenue being diverted to the Top League domestic competition instead, additional financial drain on their Super Rugby commitment was reportedly untenable.
The news caps off a tumultuous few years for Super Rugby, who already axed South Africa’s Cheetahs and Kings alongside Australia’s Western Force in recent seasons.
The Sunwolves were originally added to the competition in 2016, when Super Rugby expanded to 18 teams.
Despite being awarded the 2019 World Cup hosting rights back in 2009, putting a Super Rugby team in Asia didn’t gain serious traction until 2014, after Japan’s national side broke into the top ten rankings for the first time.
Their existing domestic competition – the Top League – was also attracting bigger names from overseas each year, while a stunning upset win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup seemingly solidified Japan’s status as a rising rugby power.
In Super Rugby, however, that didn’t eventuate. The Sunwolves were woefully uncompetitive over the first three seasons – racking up six wins, one draw and 39 losses. So far in 2019, the Japanese side have won one of four matches.