The Sunwolves announced their squad for 2017 this week.
RNJ guest writer Jay Collins gives a rundown of the players, while John Gunning from Inside Sport: Japan was there with his camera for us.
Fumiaki Tanaka and Kotaro Mastushima join the Sunwolves this season in a new-look squad as they attempt to “Rise as one” to meet the tougher challenges of facing the formidable New Zealand sides in the next Super Rugby season.
On paper this looks like a radically different Sunwolves team to the one that took to the field last season but there is a spine of experience in this team that was previously missing in their debut season.
New head coach Filo Tiatia and Japanese national team coach Jamie Joseph are clearly on the same page here. In the squad announced today, there are a much greater emphasis on Japanese eligible players and using the Sunwolves as a pathway for national team players to gain experience regularly playing against high quality opposition.
In their first season, the Sunwolves had ten players with varied international rugby experience. This season twenty-six players have already played for the Japanese national side, though many of them only had their debut in the November series.
In the tight five, the props are looking very settled with only one new inclusion, Heiichiro Ito. The 26 year old prop has been rewarded for his part of Yamaha’s strong season this year. Keita Inagaki and Masataki Mikami return for a second season. Hooker also looks largely the same with Shota Horie and Takeshi Kizu as the two who will see the bulk of the action. This season they will be backed up by Takeshi Hino, another player who has performed well in the Top League this season.
Kyosuke Kajikawa is the only new face at lock, with Japanese legend Hitoshi Ono, coming back for his second season of Super Rugby at the age of 38. Liaki Moli and Shinya Makabe are also back again.
It’s in the loose forwards that we see a number of changes from last year with Ed Quirk being the only returning face. New Japanese recruits Uwe Helu, Malgene Ilau and Shuhei Matsuhashi are among those that will be facing a tough challenge in facing the New Zealand Super Rugby sides. Its disappointing to see the absence of Andrew Durutalo from the squad this year, though understandable considering the home-grown direction the Sunwolves are going in.
In the backs, the Sunwolves have a whopping five scrumhalves to choose from with the biggest news here being the addition of Tanaka. The Japanese veteran had previously spent four seasons with the Highlanders and his experience will be crucial in relieving some of the playmaking pressure from Yu Tamura, as he guides the team around the field.
At flyhalf it is out with the old and in with the youth. The Sunwolves have a Tusi Pisi shaped hole in their roster. Pisi, now contracted to Aviva Premiership team, Bristol, was possibly the standout player last season and his experience and calm head will certainly be missed. In Pisi’s absence, Yu Tamura will surely be stepping up and it will be interesting to see how he copes with the pressure of now being the most experienced playmaker in the team. Tamura’s younger brother Hikaru has also earned a place in the squad as has New Zealand-born player Hayden Cripps, who plyed his trade in the ITM cup before moving to Japan to play for Tokyo Gas in the second division.
Centre is another position that has seen a shake up with only Derek Carpenter returning. Carpenter, who performed strongly in his first season with the Sunwolves will be joined by Japanese-International, Timothy Lafaele.
There have been some interesting developments in the outside back positions as well. Kenki Fukuoka and Teruya Goto have been selected at wing, in a position that sees none of the wings from last season returning to the team. While Matsushima will be joining the team at fullback for the next season of Super Rugby. Yasutaka Sasakura and Riaan Viljoen are also returning. Viljoen, one of the most experienced members of the Sunwolves team, will remain an important figure in guiding the squad from the back of the park.
Although there will be some more squad announcements in the coming weeks, this current team could do with more depth at centre and wing. There also seems to be a shortage of players like Durutalo, who could seriously challenge at the breakdown last season. This lack of large enforcers could hamper the Sunwolves attempts to build phases and momentum, something that was already an issue for them in their first season.
Overall this is a team with much more Super Rugby experience than last year, it is a team for the future as well and so it will be interesting to see how they cope with the demands of what will be an even more difficult season, having to face the strong New Zealand teams, starting with the Hurricanes in Tokyo on Feb. 25.
PLEASE NOTE. Since this was written the Sunwolves have named an additional four players.
Props Kanta Higashionna and Yasuo Yamaji, hooker Yusuke Niwai and lock Kazuhiko Usami, all of whom play for Canon Eagles in the Japan Rugby Top League, were added to the squad on Dec. 16.