Sunwolves aren’t taking Super Rugby seriously

The Australian July 4, 2017

Japan’s Sunwolves, the team that will take the place in the Australian conference of whichever side is culled from Super Rugby next season, aren’t taking the competition seriously, according to former Springboks coach Nick Mallett.

In the planned reorganisation of southern hemisphere rugby that will follow the expulsion of either the Western Force or the Melbourne Rebels, along with two South African teams, the Sunwolves will swing into the Australian conference, playing the remaining four Australian teams on a home-and-away basis.

No doubt there was much chortling as the Sunwolves were decimated 94-7 by the Lions in Johannesburg at the weekend and, at least from a distance, all the Australian teams would have been rubbing their hands together at the prospect of two cheap victories next year.

Yet from SANZAAR’s perspective, a weak Sunwolves defeats the very purpose of reducing the competition from 18 teams to 15. The move was intended to address the lack of competition in the Australian conference, yet the growing concern is that SANZAAR has overreached itself yet again and inflicted on Australia a Japanese side that makes both the Force and the Rebels by comparison look like title contenders.

Mallett is concerned that unless Japanese officials change their outlook on Super Rugby, the days ahead will get progressively darker for the Sunwolves.

“The Sunwolves were introduced to Super Rugby so that a strong Japanese national team could be built as they prepare to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup,” Mallett told the South African media. “But many of the best Japanese players are turning out for company-owned clubs in the country and not for the Sunwolves.

“The best Japanese players have to play for the Sunwolves. Otherwise they are going to be embarrassed many more times.”

That is the marked discrepancy of Japanese rugby: the company sides are well-run and highly competitive, while the supposed showpiece side, the Sunwolves, essentially have a borrowed roster of players on secondment from the company teams. And certainly Mallett is correct in assessing that the best players are turning out not in Super Rugby but in the Japanese’s Top League.

Meanwhile, the signing frenzy that is taking place at both the Rebels and the Force has not triggered any alarm bells at the ARU. Since all contracts are tripartite — meaning they are signed by the player, the franchise and the ARU — the national body is able to keep close watch on who is being signed for what amount.

The ARU has pledged to honour existing contracts — meaning all those that spill over into 2018 and beyond — but has made it clear that players who come out of contract at the end of this season may sign with the Rebels or Force only on the understanding that one of those clubs will have ceased to exist next year, at least as a Super Rugby presence.

If a player signs with a club that is then culled, he has the choice of joining another franchise that wants him and can fit him in under their salary cap or the contract will be cancelled and he becomes a free agent.

It was on that basis that the Rebels quartet of captain and halfback Nic Stirzaker, Wallabies hooker James Hanson, lock Steve Cummins and prop Fereti Sa’aga re-signed with the Melbourne club. Stirzaker and Hanson recommitted for one more season, Cummins and Sa’aga for two.

The Force, meanwhile, announced the resigning of playmaker Jono Lance, their eighth player to re-sign for next season, with another four or five expected to be announced later this week in the lead-up to Friday’s crunch game against the Rebels at nib Stadium.

Technically, it’s just another local derby. In reality, it will be the last meeting in history between these two sides