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Sunwolves’ Super Rugby journey comes to premature end

Rugby Australia has said the Sunwolves will not take part in Australia’s pared-back Super Rugby competition this year, bringing the curtain down on the Tokyo franchise.

This season was already set to be the Sunwolves’ last in Super Rugby. Sanzaar, the alliance of the Southern Hemisphere’s major rugby unions, last year decided to the cut team, which has failed to gain traction among Japanese fans and sponsors since launch in 2016.

The Sunwolves were being considered for entry to a competition Rugby Australia is running for its Super Rugby teams starting this July. The competition, christened Super Rugby AU, is a replacement for the full Super Rugby tournament that has been postponed due to Covid-19, and mirrors a similar competition being run for New Zealand’s teams. The Sunwolves usually play in Super Rugby’s Australian conference.

RA is this week finalising plans for Super Rugby AU, including a domestic media rights deal. A news report on the organisation’s website said “Broadcaster discussions are the final piece of the puzzle in the bid to start the competition and more details, including a draw, are expected to be revealed later this week”.

Japan Today reported that RA said travel restrictions and border closures meant the Sunwolves would not have enough time to prepare for the tournament. Current rules mean the team would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Australia before they could start training. They would also need to be housed in a permanent base in Australia for the duration of the 12-week competition.

The Sunwolves said in a statement that the development spells the end for the franchise. Club chief executive Yuji Watase said, “It’s a great disappointment to conclude the season in this way. Following the decision … the Super Rugby challenge of the Sunwolves, after five seasons, will be over. It has been an honour and privilege for us to be part of the toughest rugby competition in the world.”

PA reported that Japan Rugby Football Union chairman Shigetaka Mori said: “The five-year trajectory of Sunwolves will never disappear…When the Japan national team’s success in the Rugby World Cup last year was talked about, it proved to many fans that the existence of the Sunwolves was a key factor behind this.

“Going forward, we will continue to make use of the experience gained by the existence of the Sunwolves to work with fans and other stakeholders to further develop Japan Rugby.”

Sanzaar launched the Sunwolves in 2016 in an attempt to tap the burgeoning Japanese market for rugby union. The alliance was at the time expanding Super Rugby, and launched the Jaguares in Argentina the same year, taking the tournament to 18 teams.

The Sunwolves stuttered, however, failing to attract Japanese players, fans or sponsors. Most of Japan’s leading players continued to play in the domestic Top League, where teams owned by the country’s major corporations pay large wages. The team struggled to compete on the pitch, too, winning just eight matches in four years.

Since the Covid-19 shutdown, rumours have been swirling about the future of Super Rugby. Sanzaar has been paring back the number of teams in Super Rugby after the expansion to 18 teams in 2016 failed to generate positive results, increasing travel and logistical complexity without increasing fans or revenue. An 18-month review concluded last year with the decision to scale Super Rugby back to a 14-team, round-robin format, scrapping the current regional conferences.

Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos has refuted reports that Australian and New Zealand rugby officials were keen to strip Super Rugby back to a trans-Tasman tournament. Other formats reported to be under consideration include a finals series bringing together the winners of conferences in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa-Argentina.