by Matt McIlraith
In Japan, Fukanō [不可能] is the word for impossible.
It might soon be replaced in the local vocabulary by the name ‘Sunwolves’.
For while over-enthusiastic Anglo-Saxon commentators were quick to somewhat patronizingly dress up Japan’s Rugby World Cup win over South Africa as a ‘miracle’, in truth it will be a proper miracle if the Sunwolves win even a single game of their debut Super Rugby season.
As the U.S. already knew before last year’s Rugby World Cup, and the world pretty quickly discovered, Japan had a good team. Filled with either existing Super Rugby players, or those richly experienced by the country’s vastly improved local league, Japan always looked capable of an upset, albeit most would have picked Scotland, rather than South Africa, as their likely pool victims.
Critically, the Japanese were well prepared, having built up for the tournament over a four-year stretch. The country’s Super Rugby entry is a polar opposite in both appearance and design.
Thrown together at the last minute, with a Kiwi coach in Mark Hammett of limited and unsuccessful experience who doesn’t speak Japanese, and has never coached or played in the country, the recipe couldn’t be more wrong if they tried.
The top Japanese players know the score: most of the country’s best players will feature in Super Rugby, but have signed on for other teams. This in itself says a lot.
It is a shame that the attempt to put a competent team together has been so ham-fisted as the expected mediocrity of the Sunwolves will not provide an accurate reflection as to the real state of the Japanese game.
The unflattering scoreboard balance sheet that is anticipated will, however, provide a cutting assessment of the relative organizational capabilities (or lack thereof) of the Japanese Rugby Union.
Nothing tampers with a team’s ability to perform more quickly than disorganization or poor performance off the field. In business, it gets you fired. In sport, it means you lose, and then you get fired!
It is no coincidence that successful teams almost universally have a well-managed unit backing them behind the scenes.
The JRFU aside, SANZAAR itself can’t shirk its share of the blame for this impending disaster. It countenanced Super Rugby expansion before it was realistically ready, and then made it worse by not performing due diligence prior to accepting the Japanese entry.
The Southern Hemisphere countries got greedy. As a result, they are going to reap what they’ve sewn, in all probability damaging their strong Super Rugby brand with a flood of uncompetitive matches, while also quickly undoing the favorable global perception of the Japanese game that had only just been created.
Through no fault of its own, the collateral damage could yet impact on the U.S. as well.
The increasingly frequent visits of the New Zealand, South African, and Australian rugby teams to American soil in recent years are not coincidental. All are cash-making ventures, but also on-the-ground assessments, to see whether the States could realistically provide Super Rugby’s next stop, and preferably before Northern Hemisphere club barons start laying down markers of their own.
The same formula was applied in Japan. But while the one-off Bledisloe Cup match of 2009, and a New Zealand-Japan Test of a few years later, both bombed on most counts, self-indulgence got the better of SANZAAR. It ignored its own advice.
But an even more public humiliation, in the shape of a woefully disorganized and unsuccessful Japanese team, may force even the most bombastic among the alliance’s four-way membership to tread more warily on the expansion front.
And with the U.S. already having been stated as their next target, a not so super Sunwolves has significant ramifications for the game in the States too!
Matt McIlraith has been Communications director for the Crusaders, New Zealand, and Australia. Previously he was Managing Editor of New Zealand Rugby News.