Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Amidst increasing anger and anxiety in both South Africa and Australia over Super Rugby franchise jettisoning, the shaky showings of the Sunwolves appear to earn a strangely wide berth from discussion.
Plans for a more streamlined competition anew -- an issue many purists will agree upon -- are complicated by the vexing matter of which teams should pay the big price: as things stand, two from South Africa and one from Australia are required by SANZAAR decree to be culled in a trimming to 15 teams from next season.
Speculation remains rife on our shores that the Cheetahs and Kings will be the domestic sacrifices, whilst in Australia it appears a toss-up for their required lone axing between the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force.
The intended ditching of teams has become a particularly acrimonious issue Down Under recently, to the extent that the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) on Wednesday revealed that it would call an emergency meeting in the next few days; there have been threats of legal action by the endangered parties, and other forms of disgruntlement.
But the South African situation is also increasingly complex, in the light of the deeper weakness currently being experienced in the Aussie conference – would it be fair for SA to have to level-peg with that country with only four teams? – and the sudden awakening of the usually troubled Kings.
The Eastern Cape outfit are kicking strongly on the walls of their intended coffin, if you like, with an unprecedented three successive victories, including most recently a thrilling maiden derby triumph (over the Sharks at a healthily-populated Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium).
Under the circumstances, I would argue that the Japan-based Sunwolves are surprisingly fortunate to appear immune to scrutiny over their own less-than-illustrious contribution to Super Rugby so far.
Not even unanimously supported by the key rugby authorities and financial backers in Japan itself, the Sunwolves suddenly debuted in the much-changed – controversially so -- competition last year, supposedly as a step toward greater visibility for rugby in that country in the lead-up to their first-time hosting of the World Cup in 2019.
Although the Jaguares arrived simultaneously in Super Rugby 2016 as additional new faces to break the once exclusive “three-nation” flavour of SA, NZ and Australia, their presence at least fell in line with the promotion just a few years earlier of Argentina to a role in the Rugby Championship (formerly Tri-Nations) and they also helped keep an overwhelmingly southern-hemisphere flavour to Super Rugby.
But, located almost 4,000km north of the equator (at least as far as their main home base of Tokyo is concerned) the Sunwolves – rightly or wrongly -- greatly altered the identity of the competition.
I made the analogy on the SuperSport television chat show First XV last week that installing the Sunwolves to Super Rugby looked only a little less jarring than, say, Kaizer Chiefs or Boca Juniors suddenly being latched onto the English Premiership in football.
The following question, surely, has some pertinence: have the Sunwolves shown enough in a season and roughly two-thirds thus far to convince that it is worth retaining them, at the expense of a team from one of the more established rugby superpowers … and given the disenchantment the intended sacrifices is so clearly causing?
Statistically, something that should always be among the purest of sporting barometers, it is a battle to justify the presence of a rather journeyman-looking side – well short on true individual star quality -- who admittedly draw good crowds in Tokyo but often miserly gates in their alternative home, Singapore.
They have won a grand total of two Super Rugby matches in 25 appearances, embracing all of last season and to the current juncture in 2017, for a win percentage of a lamentable eight!
That puts them significantly shy, performance-wise, of all of the other four teams in the competition under the greatest threat of being binned.
Here’s another thought that hardly serves as justification for the Sunwolves’ survival at the expense of any other, more established franchise: they haven’t yet beaten a single one of the four sides who are under a participation cloud from next year.
In 2016, these were the relevant results (home team given first): Sunwolves 31 Cheetahs 32, Sunwolves 9 Rebels 35, Kings 33 Sunwolves 28, Cheetahs 92 Sunwolves 17, Sunwolves 22 Force 40.
Thus far in 2017, the card reads: Sunwolves 23 Kings 37, Cheetahs 38 Sunwolves 31.
If you assembled a “league table” of comparative performance between the Sunwolves, Kings, Cheetahs, Force and Rebels for all fixtures between the start of 2016 and the present in the 2017 competition, this is what it would look like, in descending order from best in win percentage terms:
Rebels: P25 W 8 D1 L16; Log pts: 39. Win percentage: 32.00
Kings: P25 W6 D0 L19; Log pts: 28. Win percentage: 24.00
Cheetahs: P26 W6 D0 L20; Log pts: 32. Win percentage: 23.07
Force: P25 W5 D0 L20; Log pts: 26. Win percentage: 20.00
Sunwolves: P25 W2 D1 L22; Log pts: 16. Win percentage: 8.00
Food for thought? Or is that not even going to be entertained?
It wouldn’t appear so …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing