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Another steep learning curve for Sunwolves

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 20/02/2017 By Shinichi Saoshiro

The Sunwolves finished last in their 2016 Super Rugby debut season and while they may benefit from a deeper pool of experience and more settled structure, a tougher schedule could make it an even leaner year for the Japanese outfit.

The Asian side claimed just the one win last season, a 36-28 upset of Argentina's Jaguares in Tokyo, and incurred 13 losses including a 92-17 thrashing by the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

The Sunwolves' learning curve is about to get even steeper as they will come up against teams from the powerhouse New Zealand conference for the first time this season.

It begins this Saturday when they host the defending champion Hurricanes in Tokyo.

The Sunwolves have, however, achieved a measure of consistency by securing the return of 21 players from last season.

All Black Filo Tiatia was promoted from assistant to coach last year to take over from another former All Black, Mark Hammett, who departed for the Highlanders after the Sunwolves' inaugural season.

The fledgling franchise have also added a scrum coach for this season, which should help the forwards get to grips with the set-piece.

A relatively large squad of 51 players allows the Sunwolves, with one of the league's most demanding travel schedules, to spread out the burden of long flights across Asia, Africa and Oceania.

The Sunwolves again play three "home" games in Singapore this season where they are co-based.

The team could also benefit from close cooperation with the Japanese national side by providing players with a clear incentive to perform.

Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has said the core of 2019 World Cup national side should come from the Sunwolves.

"The Sunwolves are one of the teams that will accelerate the development of our players, especially players that haven't played at that level," Joseph said on Saturday after the Sunwolves overcame a Japan Top League select side 24-12.

"It's not going to be easy for our team because a lot of the players are inexperienced at this level, but it's simply what we need going forward."

Japan centre Hiromichi Tatekawa and Australian loose forward Ed Quirk, the team's stalwarts last year, are co-captains this season. They lead a diverse team that includes nationals from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Samoa and South Korea.

The key for the backs is filling the void left by the departures of talismanic Samoa flyhalf Tusi Pisi, who scored the most points last season, and Japan wing Akihito Yamada, last year's leading try-scorer.

Japan halfback Fumiaki Tanaka will provides experience and valuable knowledge of New Zealand teams after spending four seasons with the Highlanders.

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