Sunwolves Farewell XV
OPINION: If the COVID-19 outbreak hadn’t brought Super Rugby – and every other sporting competition worldwide – to a standstill, the Sunwolves would have got the farewell they deserved.
This season was supposed to be their farewell tour from the Southern Hemisphere’s franchise competition, with SANZAAR bosses deciding to cull the Japanese side in favour of a 14-team, round-robin structure from next year onwards.
The Sunwolves had planned accordingly for 2020, scheduling one-off home fixtures across the country in places like Fukuoka and Osaka to accompany other matches they were set to host in their regular locations of Tokyo and Singapore.
Instead, the coronavirus pandemic forced the Osaka match against the Brumbies to take place in front of a near-empty stadium in Wollongong, while the following week’s clash against the Crusaders was played in Brisbane rather than the Japanese capital.
A week after that, Super Rugby was suspended indefinitely, leaving the Sunwolves faithful without a chance to see their side in action one last time at their Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.
Those hearty few Sunwolves fans based out of Singapore were also robbed of the chance to see Naoya Okubo’s team in the flesh at all this year, with the franchise seemingly destined for the history books from here on out.
Despite winning just nine of their 68 matches since their induction into Super Rugby in 2016, the scintillating, off-the-cuff style of play with minimal star power throughout their squad made the Sunwolves everyone’s second favourite side.
Their free-flowing attack and unrelenting ambition often yielded packed out crowds for home fixtures in Tokyo, with their impressive attendance record putting the rest of the competition to shame.
Such staunch support both within the country and abroad meant SANZAAR’s decision to axe the franchise so it could revert to round-robin format proved to be a wildly unpopular one, especially given Japan’s success at their own World Cup last year.
Optimists will hope this unprecedented global pandemic will force a re-think about the Sunwolves’ future in Super Rugby as organisers continue to plot a restructure to the competition with financial downfall and border restrictions set to play a key role in the decision-making process.
Murmurings persist of involvement in a potential Australasian breakaway tournament featuring the New Zealand and Australian teams, but with nothing set in stone, this remains the end of the road for the time being.
With that in mind, it only seems right to acknowledge the best Sunwolves players who have taken to the field throughout Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina over the past five seasons.
Whether it be a homegrown Japanese star who blossomed at last year’s World Cup or an import deemed surplus to requirements overseas, many players have risen to prominence while wearing the red and white jersey, with only a select few considered worthy enough to make our all-time Sunwolves XV.
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15. Kotaro Matsushima
Like Fukuoka, South African-born speedster Kotaro Matsushima set last year’s World Cup alight with his impressive attacking skill set, which he partly honed across two seasons with the Sunwolves between 2017 and 2018.
The 39-test Brave Blossom’s acquisition came after brief spells with the Sharks and Rebels, and he remains the only Sunwolves players to average more than four defenders beaten per match.
Matsushima can also boast arguably the biggest reputation of any player in the side’s history as he prepares for a big money move to Top 14 outfit Clermont.
14. Kenki Fukuoka
One of the stars of the World Cup, Kenki Fukuoka had already been catching the attention of Super Rugby followers since his debut campaign with the Sunwolves in 2017.
The 27-year-old exuded pace and agility from the No. 14 jersey, two attributes which combined to make for a strong nose for the tryline, which Fukuoka found five times in his 13 outings for the franchise.
Similarly to Fukuoka, Masirewa and Saumaki, the Sunwolves have been blessed with further standout options on the wing in the recent years, including Lomano Lemeki and Akihito Yamada.
13. Tim Lafaele
Little’s partner in crime throughout the 2018 campaign, Tim Lafaele has been a stalwart of the Sunwolves since his Super Rugby debut in 2016.
During his time at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, the Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised midfielder’s stocks have gone from strength to strength, and that has been recognised in the form of 23 test caps for Japan.
Lafaele has since moved on to join the Kobelco Steelers in the Top League.
12. Michael Little
How Michael Little never received a Super Rugby contract in New Zealand after being let go by the Blues in 2016 is unfathomable for many Kiwi rugby followers, and he showed why in his breakout campaign with the Sunwolves two years ago.
The Italian-born son of former All Blacks midfielder Walter Little was simply sensational with ball in hand from the Sunwolves’ midfield and wreaked havoc all season long with his slippery running ability and silky distribution skills.
How Little, who is a former Fiji U20 representative, hasn’t yet played internationally for either New Zealand, Fiji, Italy or Japan is surprising to say the least, but a player of his calibre must surely be on the radar of at least three of those nations.
11. Semisi Masirewa
In his two years of Super Rugby experience with the Western Force between 2016 and 2017, Semisi Masirewa hardly set the world alight, which made him an unfashionable signing when the Sunwolves picked him up ahead of the 2018 season.
However, the Fijian flyer turned the competition on its head with a series of spellbinding performances – the best of which came last season against the Waratahs in Newcastle – where he scored tries at will and looked many times better the player he was in Perth.
Masirewa’s inclusion in this side can be considered all the more impressive considering he’s kept out the blockbusting Hosea Saumaki in doing so.
10. Hayden Parker
When Damian McKenzie went down with an injury that ultimately ruled him out of last year’s World Cup, there were calls from fans and pundits alike for the All Blacks to relax their selection policy to make Hayden Parker eligible for international duty.
That’s how good the former Highlanders pivot was during his two-season stay with the Sunwolves between 2018 and 2019.
Parker’s scarcely believable 71 successful kicks at goal from 72 attempts across a 12-month period will go down in Super Rugby folklore, while his 36-point showing in the Sunwolves’ 63-28 thrashing of the Reds two years ago was one for the ages.
9. Kaito Shigeno
The Sunwolves have been blessed with a multitude of lively halfbacks since coming to the fray in 2016, but it’s hard to look past Kaito Shigeno for a spot in this team.
An original member of the 2016 squad, Shigeno has been involved in some of the Sunwolves’ most famous victories, including their first-ever win against the Jaguares four years ago, their 48-21 upset of the Blues in 2017 and last year’s 30-15 shock win over the Chiefs.
It’s worth noting that the Sunwolves have had a raft of other talented halfbacks who were sensational during their time in Tokyo, including Fumiaki Tanaka, Yukata Nagare, Keisuke Uchida and Jamie Booth.
8. Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco
Possibly one of the most damaging ball-runners the Sunwolves have ever had, Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco signed on with the franchise in 2017, but it wasn’t until last year where we saw his brutal physicality with ball in hand.
So good was the Australian-born 24-year-old that former head coach Tony Brown named him at second-five for a few matches in 2019, and he certainly didn’t look out of place in the midfield when at his barnstorming best.
Warren-Vosayaco’s selection at No. 8 is a testament to his abilities given that Japanese stars Michael Leitch and Amanaki Mafi are former Sunwolves players themselves.
7. Pieter Labuschagne
Another South African-born forward to play for Japan internationally, Lappies, as he is affectionaly called, hit the ground running in emphatic fashion in his first Super Rugby campaign with the Sunwolves two years ago.
The former Cheetahs and Bulls flank’s defensive exploits were among the best in the competition in 2018, and he was rewarded with a test debut last year before going on to captain Japan to their victory over Ireland at the World Cup.
New Zealand brothers Dan and Kara Pryor were also standouts for the Sunwolves in their brief stint with the franchise last season.
6. Willie Britz
Not normally deployed as a blindside flank during his time with the Sunwolves, but it would be unjust if South African cult hero Willie Britz was excluded from this side.
After joining the franchise ahead of the 2017 campaign, the former Lions and Cheetahs loose forward was hard to miss with his long, curly locks as he got himself in the thick of things match after match regardless of the result.
Other candidates for this spot include New Zealand-born Japan star Hendrik Tui, former Queensland Reds enforcer Ed Quirk and South African-born Brave Blossoms flank Wimpie van der Walt.
5. Uwe Helu
Signing on from Yamaha Jubilo in 2017, Tongan-born lock Uwe Helu became a staple of the Sunwolves’ forward pack during his three-season spell in Super Rugby.
The 1.93m, 115kg behemoth can boast the most defenders beaten by any Sunwolves forward of all-time after breaking through 32 tackles from his 22 appearances.
The likes of Australasian trio Sam Wykes, Tom Rowe and Michael Stolberg also warrant mention for their respective efforts in the Sunwolves’ second row.
4. Grant Hattingh
Jamie Joseph’s recruitment of South African lock Grant Hattingh in 2018 proved to be a masterstroke move by the one-time Super Rugby-winning coach.
Plucked from the Kubota Spears in the Top League after Super Rugby experience with the Lions and Bulls, Hattingh made a significant impact at the set piece, at the breakdown and on defence as the franchise finished the season with a record three wins.
The 29-year-old has since joined reigning Top League champions, the Kobelco Steelers.
3. Ji-won Koo
Rounding out an all-Japanese front row of original Sunwolves players, Ji-won Koo caught the eye with his impressive running game during his four-season stint in Tokyo.
The South Korea-born tighthead’s performances in Super Rugby earned him an international debut for Japan at the end of 2017, with the 25-year-old going on to playing a key role in his adopted nation’s maiden run to the World Cup quarter-finals.
Is now back playing in the Top League for the Honda Heat.
2. Shota Horie
Another member of the inaugural 2016 squad, Shota Horie returned to Super Rugby after a two-season spell with the Melbourne Rebels between 2013 and 2014.
The 66-test Brave Blossom played an integral role from both a leadership and playing standpoint in the Sunwolves’ formative years, with his ability showcased on a global scale at the World Cup.
Georgian recruit Jaba Bregvadze also proved to be handful in the latter years of the franchise’s existence.
1. Keita Inagaki
As one of the original Sunwolves, Keita Inagaki also proved to be one of the longest-serving members of a team that had an extraordinarily large transfer flow of players.
After signing with the franchise in 2016, the 29-year-old stayed on through until last year, before rejoining the Panasonic Wild Knights on a full-time basis following last year’s World Cup success with Japan.
Kiwi duo Craig Millar, formerly of the Highlanders, and Pauliasi Manu, the ex-Blues and Chiefs loosehead, also shone brightly during their tenures in the No. 1 jersey.
By Alex McLeod, RugbyPass