Sunwolves face Super Rugby crunch as RWC looms
Tokyo - Japan's Sunwolves take a woeful track record into their fourth Super Rugby season with the growing threat of extinction hanging over the Tokyo-based franchise.
Head coach Tony Brown, assistant to Japan boss Jamie Joseph last campaign, will have to perform a delicate balancing act with a bloated squad built largely to cater for the national team's World Cup preparations.
The Sunwolves face South Africa's Sharks this weekend in their opening game aiming for just their seventh victory after three chastening seasons in the southern hemisphere's elite competition.
Brown is expected to rotate liberally in the run-up to the World Cup in Japan later this year with Brave Blossoms in particular likely to be used with extreme care.
But the New Zealander will be under extreme pressure to deliver results with the Sunwolves facing an uncertain future as Super Rugby bosses prepare to meet in March to discuss the competition's future format.
Critics have called for the Sunwolves to be kicked out, pointing to their poor record and the fact they rely so heavily on imports - with players from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga, Georgia and South Korea having pulled on the red shirt.
That volume of foreigners, dissenters argue, defeats a key reason for including the Sunwolves in the first place: to help grow rugby in Asia.
However, Brown's first objective will be to beat the Sharks in Singapore before a daunting visit by the Waratahs to Tokyo on February 23.
The Sunwolves won three games last season - their best return to date after a torrid first two years.
And while they should improve on that, they lack the quality to suggest they can reach the knockout stage for a first time.
Brown does have extra depth at his disposal with Kiwi-born centre Rene Ranger drafted in from France's La Rochelle potentially offering the X-factor in attack.
The Sunwolves coach also has backbone of strong leaders - including Japan captain Michael Leitch and Shota Horie - and playing in the weaker Australian conference will help the perennial wooden-spooners, who leaked more than 40 points a game last year.
"We want to play Japanese rugby, which is an expansive style with a lot of skill and speed," said Brown, promising to persevere with a high-tempo game.
"The players we have added are the right players to play our style of rugby and will add to our game."
But Brown faces the tricky task of coaxing the best from his Sunwolves while their Japan internationals have one eye on the World Cup on home soil.
He will be helped by the addition of veteran lock Luke Thompson, who helped Japan stun South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, and boasts two top-class fly-halves in Yu Tamura and Hayden Parker, not to mention jet-heeled wing Kenki Fukuoka.
Joseph, who stepped away from the Sunwolves to concentrate on the Brave Blossoms, will be looking on closely with his own priorities clearly defined - to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.