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The Brave Blossoms’ heroics at the Rugby World Cup mean that the timing for a new Japanese Super Rugby franchise couldn’t be better, except that the process of putting the Sunwolves together has been anything but smooth.
Mark Hammett and his coaching staff have had only a few weeks and one warm-up match against a Top League XV to get their squad prepared for what looks set to be an arduous campaign, starting with the visit of arguably the best side in South Africa.
Under the guidance of Johan Ackermann the Lions have made steady progress, surprising many in Super Rugby last year before going on to an unbeaten run in the Currie Cup to lift that title.
Now Ackermann and his troops are expected to make the leap from also-rans into contenders.
With wins in their last two matches outside of South Africa, the Lions will be aiming for three straight victories outside of their home nation for the first time in their Super Rugby history, and are expected to deliver.
The question is whether the Sunwolves – without the services of Japan stars Goromaru, Leitch, Tanaka and so on – have enough in the tank to cause an upset spurred on by their supporters in Tokyo.
Players to watch: Success for the Sunwolves is going to hinge on the performances of their captain Shota Horie, the Japan hooker who has experience of playing in Super Rugby after his efforts with the Rebels in 2013 and 2014. Horie is the perfect candidate to lead the side and has shown in the past at this level what a dynamic ball carrier he can be, while the Sunwolves need a strong set-piece in order to remain competitive.
For the Lions this feels like a game made for the quick breaks we’ve seen so often from Jaco Kriel. The Springbok-in-waiting was the only forward to finish in the top ten for defenders beaten in last year’s competition, and given how the Sunwolves are expected to come out with an expansive game-plan, Kriel and the Lions should benefit from plenty of space to attack.
Team news: Horie will captain the team, with 37-year-old lock Hitoshi Ono in the second row alongside Bay of Plenty’s Tim Bond. Edward Quirk, previously with the Reds, starts at number eight in a back row which includes USA international Andrew Durutalo at openside flanker. Samoa number ten Tusi Pisi starts at fly-half while Harumichi Tatekawa and Akihito Yamada, who impressed at the Rugby World Cup for the Brave Blossoms, both start in the backline. Former Cheetahs and Sharks full-back Riaan Viljoen completes the line-up.
Warren Whiteley captains an experienced Lions starting XV with include young front-row Dylan Smith, loose forward Ruan Ackermann and back Rohan Janse van Rensburg, who all had a taste of Currie Cup in 2015. Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies form the half-back combination.
Form: The Sunwolves only warm-up match, and first ever game, ended with a 52-24 win over a Top League XV, in which they scored eight tries and fly-half Tusi Pisi played a key role. Hammett will need the best out of the Samoa fly-half this year, especially with his goal-kicking.
Simple warm-up wins over Valke and the Leopards for the Lions have been followed by a narrow loss to the Bulls and then a heavier loss to the Jaguares, although that was with a weaker side than the one we’ll see in Tokyo.
Prediction: The Sunwolves’ lack of time together could be their downfall. Then again, they have nothing to lose. The Lions naturally are heavy favourites but will be contending with a new environment, travel, and the expectation to win comfortably. Lions by 15.
Sunwolves: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Akihito Yamada, 13 Harumichi Tatekawa, 12 Yu Tamura, 11 Yasutaka Sasakura, 10 Tusi Pisi, 9 Atsushi Hiwasa, 8 Edward Quirk, 7 Andrew Durutalo, 6 Liaki Moli, 5 Hitoshi Ono, 4 Timothy Bond, 3 Shinnosuke Kakinaga, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Masataka Mikami, 17 Takeshi Kizu, 18 Koki Yamamoto, 19 Shinya Makabe, 20 Yoshiya Hosoda, 21 Kaito Shigeno, 22 Derek Carpenter, 23 Hajime Yamashita
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnal Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Ruan Dreyer.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Ruan Ackermann, 21 Jaco van der Walt, 22 Harold Vorster, 23 Rohan Janse van Rensburg