WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — On the evidence of the first round of the Super Rugby season, the best team in the Australia conference may be based in Tokyo.
Japan's Sunwolves began their final season with a convincing win over the Melbourne Rebels as only two of five teams in the conference won in the opening round.
Last year's conference champions the ACT Brumbies beat the Queensland Reds in the first Australian derby of the season. But the New South Wales Waratahs joined the Rebels in defeat, going down to three-time defending champions the Christchurch-based Crusaders.
To some extent those results bore out the worst fears of pessimistic Australia fans who foresaw another season of lean achievement by Australia's four franchises. The Waratahs were the last Australian team to win the tournament, in 2014, and only four have claimed the title in a competition which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
The Brumbies and Waratahs have each made the semifinals twice since 2014 but neither has progressed to the final in a five-year period in which the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders have captured titles.
To the more optimistic fan there was some cause for hope. The Brumbies were sound if not spectacular in beating the youthful Reds; the Rebels rallied strongly after trailing the Sunwolves 36-13 midway through the second half to lose 36-27 and the Waratahs showed potential if they can eliminate the errors that cost them dearly against the Crusaders.
But the Sunwolves looked the most finished side in the conference at this early stage; more unified and less rusty than their Australian-based conference rivals.
The Sunwolves could have followed one of two paths this year: they could have seen any effort as wasted, knowing they will leave the tournament at the end of the season under any circumstances, or they could seek to make a final statement. They clearly have chosen the latter and they will be heard if they continue to upset teams such as the Rebels who have been fast-starters in recent seasons.
The Sunwolves as a franchise are victims of insoluble rugby politics. Super Rugby organizers SANZAAR announced in March last year that it would cut the Sunwolves at the end of the 2020 season after failing to reach agreement with the Japan Rugby Union on financial issues.
The JRU objected to Sanzaar's intransigence and said it would follow other avenues in developing its players. Past performances weren't a central issue, though the Sunwolves have won only eight games in four years.
Their squad in 2020 has an even more multi-national cast than in the past. The relocation of the Japan Top League to the start of the year means many Japan players are not available.
There were only three Japanese players in the Sunwolves starting team that took the field at Fukuoka on Saturday and the match-day squad additionally comprised players from Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa, Tonga and Georgia.
Despite their diverse backgrounds, those players have been drawn tightly together by the shared desire to make their best of a difficult situation.
"One of the great things about this team are the different cultures, attitudes and beliefs," the Sunwolves Australian-born co-captain Jake Schatz said. "We may have different backgrounds but we want to play the Sunwolves style with ball in hand and everyone has bought into it."
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