Big defeats and the odd win: Sunwolves' Super Rugby struggles
Tokyo - The Tokyo-based Sunwolves will be axed from Super Rugby at the end of 2020 season. A look at five notable moments during their short spell in the southern hemisphere's elite competition.
- Slow start -
The Sunwolves won their berth in Super Rugby courtesy of the sport looking to expand its global footprint into Asia for the 2016 season.
It followed a flurry of interest in the wake of Japan's best ever World Cup, but the team initially struggled to find a suitable head coach and put together a competitive playing group.
Eddie Jones, now in charge of England, had been lined up as coach but walked away, with former All Blacks hooker Mark Hammett finally appointed barely two months before the tournament began.
An experienced 34-man squad was eventually unveiled, including 10 of the Japan squad that had played at the recent World Cup along with a mix of other nationalities.
- 'Can handle losing' -
They gave a good account of themselves in front of a 25 000 full house in Tokyo in their opening game in February 2016, with a predicted bloodbath failing to materialise.
They went down to South Africa's Lions 26-13 with Hammett saying: "We can always handle losing if we know the players have given everything."
They needed to get used to defeat, as wins would prove a rare commodity.
- Off the mark -
The Sunwolves scored a momentous first victory in front of their home fans in April 2016 with a pulsating 36-28 battle against Argentine new boys the Jaguares.
It was largely down to Samoan flyhalf Tusi Pisi who booted 18 points to give his team a glimmer of hope after a torrid start to their first season.
"To get this historic win in Japan is very special," captain Shota Horie said.
The breakthrough win came on the back of a humiliating 92-17 thrashing by the Cheetahs the week before, which promoted Jones to slam the team's lack of depth as "embarrassing".
Their celebrations were short-lived - it was the only win in their debut season, which also saw one draw and 13 defeats.
- Calls for axing grow -
The Sunwolves' woeful form continued into 2017, when they won just two of 15 games, and 2018, where they managed just three victories. It sparked growing calls for them to be kicked out of the competition.
Critics pointed to their poor record and the fact they relied so heavily on imports - with players from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga, Georgia and South Korea having pulled on the red shirt.
Dissenters argued that this defeated a key reason for including the Sunwolves in the first place: to help grow rugby in Asia.
"We want to play Japanese rugby, which is an expansive style with a lot of skill and speed," insisted current coach Tony Brown - their fourth in as many seasons - ahead of the 2019 campaign.
- Historic breakthrough -
After three long years of trying, the Sunwolves finally scored a win away from home with a 30-15 upset of the Chiefs earlier this month.
A year ago, the Chiefs thrashed the Sunwolves 61-10, with the unexpected win finally proving progress. It followed the Japanese side going within a point of upsetting the Waratahs the previous weekend.
"The boys hung in and I'm proud of the way we stuck it out to the end," said Sunwolves flyhalf Hayden Parker, who converted all three tries and added three penalties.
However, the win came just weeks before the team learned it would be sent into exile after next season.