The Sunwolves’ time as a Super Rugby team has come to an end after they were unable to join the Australian version of the competition this year.
Player upheaval of historical proportions and the knowledge that there won’t be a next year means the Sunwolves will be a very interesting team to watch this season – probably for all the wrong reasons.
SANZAAR’s bizarre decision to announce the axing of the Sunwolves midway through last season meant 2020 was always going to have an odd feeling to it. The soon-to-be extinct Japanese franchise brings a completely unrecognisable squad to the table, which makes a competitive performance seem very unlikely.
We’ve heard about the Crusaders, Highlanders and Bulls getting slammed in the departure department, but what the Sunwolves have gone through defies belief.
Every single player contracted to the Sunwolves last season – bar three – is no longer at the club. Unless their name is Jaba Bregvadze, Tom Rowe or Hencus van Wyk, your favourite Sunwolves player is plying their trade in Japan’s Top League this season instead, although a very small handful have gone elsewhere.
In response to this shocking exodus, the Sunwolves have – to their credit – attracted some interesting names to play out their final season.
Ben Te’o coming over from Toulon is news, while Leni Apisai, JJ Engelbrecht, Chris Eves, Ben Hyne, Jordan Jackson-Hope, Mitch Jacobson, Efi Ma’afu, Tautalatasi Tasi and Conraad van Vuuren have all jumped across from other Super Rugby clubs.
Were any of those players in their respective teams’ first-choice XVs last season? We move on.
Garth April, James Dargaville, JJ Engelbrecht, Siosaia Fifita, Alex Horan, Burua Inoke, Jordan Jackson-Hope, Takahiro Kimura, Hiroki Kumoyama, Keisuke Moriya, Shogo Nakano, Rudy Paige, Naoto Saito, Tautalatasi Tasi, Ben Te’o
Jarred Adams, Chang Ho Ahn, Leni Apisai, Sione Asi, Jaba Bregvadze, Kaku Bunkei, Justin Downey, Chris Eves, Mamoru Harada, Ryuga Hashimoto, Onehunga Havili, Ben Hyne, Mitch Jacobson, Mateaki Kafatolu, Efi Ma’afu, Shunsuke Nunomaki, Brendon O’Connor, Tom Rowe, Jake Schatz, Michael Stolberg, Corey Thomas, Tevita Tupou, Conraad van Vuuren, Hencus van Wyk, Kotaro Yatabe
Coach: Naoya Okubo
Ins: Everyone except Jaba Bregvadze, Tom Rowe and Hencus van Wyk. Naoya Okubo (coach)
Outs: As above. Tony Brown (coach)
Coming up for strengths and weaknesses for a side that, for all intents and purposes, we’ve never seen play together before is very difficult to do accurately.
The Sunwolves will have absolutely nothing to lose in 2020. There’s no ‘process’ to follow, no ‘building’ to do, no style of rugby they need to try and establish over an extended period of time.
Everyone on the list will presumably be playing for a longer deal elsewhere next season, so this side has no excuses not to give it their all every single week – which could make them difficult to play against.
The Sunwolves have been a generally uncompetitive side for their Super Rugby history and, this season, have thrown it all out and started again. Any and all progress made in terms of cohesiveness, team spirit and intra-squad familiarity have gone out the window.
They may as well be viewed as a new expansion side for 2020.
There may be pockets of individual talent here and there, but the simple fact is that this group of players is literally several years behind their opponents in terms of team preparation.
It kind of has to be doesn’t it?
The 32-year-old veteran of eight NRL seasons and three State of Origin series switched to Rugby in 2014, playing for Leinster, Worcester Warriors and Toulon since. Now, he finds himself in Japan as arguably the marquee player in an otherwise ragtag bunch.
No one player at the team has what it takes to significantly impact on the club’s trajectory in 2020, but Te’o will likely be the centre of attention and his play will at least go some way to influencing public sentiment.
There really isn’t a whole lot of exciting young talent on the Sunwolves list this year, but 23-year-old Jordan Jackson Hope’s name does stand out.
The former Brumby has had something of a stop-start Super Rugby journey so far and will be backing himself to beat out JJ Engelbrecht for the right to play centre alongside Ben Te’o and give his career a kick start.
Alternatively, he may end up at fullback or even challenge Garth April for the no.10 jersey.
Like a hastily-rebooted TV series with new and unfamiliar characters, all signs point to the Sunwolves’ final season in Super Rugby being nothing but a disaster. What could have been an inspiring year for the region coming off the back of an extremely successful World Cup will be nothing more than a punchline.
There’s always next year. Until there isn’t.
Prediction: Last in the Australian conference