Sunwolves facing challenges ahead of Super Rugby debut

By JIM ARMSTRONG - AP Sports Writer ,

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Mark Hammett of New Zealand speaks during a press conference at a hotel in Tokyo after being named as head coach of the Sunwolves, a Japan-based club.

Mark Hammett of New Zealand speaks during a press conference at a hotel in Tokyo after being named as head coach of the Sunwolves, a Japan-based club. (Photo: Kyodo News via AP)

TOKYO (AP) — With his Sunwolves assembling just this week for a Super Rugby debut later in the month, Mark Hammett knows that crunch time is fast approaching for the Japan-based club.

The Sunwolves will have just one formal trial match before hosting the Johannesburg-based Lions on Feb. 27 at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo in the first round of the revamped southern hemisphere provincial competition.

New Zealander Hammett, the former All Blacks hooker, was appointed on Dec. 21 but only got his 34-man squad together for the first time on Wednesday, taking care of some administrative duties before training opens on Monday.

Super Rugby has long been the exclusive domain of teams from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia since rugby went professional in the mid-1990s, expanding from a 10- to a 15-team competition between 1996 and 2015.

The concept of adding teams from Japan and Argentina to the tournament was long mooted as a way of developing the game. But the logistics are difficult — with 18 teams — three more than last year — and two new continents involved to incorporate. Japan and the Jaguares of Argentina have been added to an expanded South Africa conference, each containing three domestic clubs and one from abroad. The Sunwolves have been grouped with the Bulls, the three-time champions from Pretoria, the Stormers and the Cheetahs.

"We know it's going to be tough," Hammett said. "Super Rugby is probably the hardest competition in the world. That's why it's important that we play our style of rugby and be innovative in the way we attack."

With a 34-man squad that includes just 15 players with test experience, the concern is the Sunwolves may be overwhelmed in their first season. The squad includes Samoa flyhalf Tusi Pisi, former Auckland Blues lock Liaki Moli and New Zealand provincial players Tim Bond and Derek Carpenter.

Despite the lack of depth and the logistical issues, Hammett is hoping to build on the success of Japan's surprising results at the 2015 Rugby World Cup where the national team beat two-time champion South Africa in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. Ten members of that team are in the Sunwolves squad.

With Japan's domestic Top League able to attract big-name foreign players and the Japanese national team breaking into the top 10 of the World Rugby rankings for the first time in 2014, Tokyo was seen as the ideal place to help rugby grow in the lucrative Asian market.

But there are bound to be growing pains. For the time being, the Sunwolves will use the training facilities of several teams in the Top League and many of the players are just getting to know one another.

"There are some players here we've never met before," flyhalf Harumichi Tatekawa said when the team assembled in Tokyo for physical tests. "Obviously, communication will be key to creating a strong team."

Then there are the logistical challenges.

The squad will be away from Tokyo for 83 days out of 140 and 15 of their flights will be longer than seven hours in duration, including a three-week road trip in South Africa.

The Sunwolves will play three of their "home" games in Singapore. The Sunwolves play each team in their group twice, and have one match each against the four teams in the other South Africa conference (Jaguares, Kings, Lions, Sharks) and the five teams in the Australian Conference (Brumbies, Force, Rebels, Reds, Waratahs).

The 43-year-old Hammett boasts a wealth of Super League experience.

He served as assistant with the Christchurch-based Crusaders (2007-10) and head coach at the Wellington-based Hurricanes (2011-14) before heading to Europe to take up the Director of Rugby role at the Cardiff Blues (2014-15).

He earned 81 caps for Crusaders, where he played from 1996-2003, and 29 test caps for New Zealand.

Hammett is hoping his experience and the enthusiasm for the game in Japan will help create a winning atmosphere.

"Rugby is on the rise in Japan," Hammett said. "We're hoping the Sunwolves can keep improving Japanese rugby."

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