The Sunwolves host the Rebels in round one of Super Rugby 2020.
After a three-month hiatus, Rugby is back! We’ve endured the cricket, tennis, and other countless boring summer sports. Finally, the game we love is back!
After a highly successful RWC 2019, I’d assume the Japanese public would be waiting with feverous anticipation for their beloved Sunwolves season to start. Surely there is a groundswell of national pride in Rugby, and the public is ready to fill the stands.
Sadly, no. For whatever bizarre reason, 2020 is the last howl for Pinging. We will not see the Sunwolves past this season, abandoning what is now an emerging Rugby market. Well played, JFRU and SANZAAR.
2020 – the year of the Sunwolves swansong
Meanwhile, the Rebels are looking to build on the last few years, with some continuity in the squad and backroom team. We’ve been used to seeing a consistent exodus from AAMI park each year, but not this time. It’s refreshing to see the similar faces in the squad, and with some handy inclusions in the off-season. Things are looking good for the Rebels.
If the trial matches are any guide, it’s not a good start for the Rebels. I never look too much into trial match form, and give we’re 0 from 2 this season, my rule seems quite convenient. An undermanned Rebels squad suffered a heavy defeat against the Reds, while a near full-strength team narrowly lost to the Brumbies. As most pundits suggest, don’t read anything into trial game form. It’s just a chance for the coaches to try out a few plays, and the players to get some match fitness. The real stuff begins on Saturday.
Rebels – Big in Japan
Most of the Sunwolves squad only came together in the last few weeks, so team cohesion will be a major problem in the early rounds. It was reported in December the club only had 18 registered players. Even my local club had more players registered in December! Hardly a good preparation for a very long season ahead.
The Sunwolves played a trial against an MLR side (I think the Seawolves) with the results unknown. Let me know the score in the comments below if you know it. The main takeaway here; the Sunwolves seem very underprepared.
The Rebels picked a strong side, capable of dealing some major damage to any team, but I also with a view to upcoming matches against the Brumbies and Waratahs. Lomani and To’omua form a new halves pair, Kellaway starts on the blind wing, with Koroibete moving to the unfamiliar right wing. In the pack, Rob Leota get a start on the openside flank, with Angus Cottrell at blindside. Meakes and Hodge form a familiar pain the midfield, with the DHP at fullback. A strong bench consisting of Smith, Jones, Hardwick and Wells gives the Rebels some muscle in the second half.
Frank Lomani – livewire scrumhalf
For the Sunwolves there is a mix of debutants and veterans. Ben Te’o starts his first super rugby match at inside centre, and ex-Brumby James Dargaville starts at fullback. Captain Jake Shatz, playing for his third Super Rugby side, lines up at number 8. It’s a very different looking side to the 2019 squad.
Sunwolves (15-1): James Dargaville, Siosaia Fifita, Keisuke Moriya (co-c), Ben Te’o, Tautalatasi Tasi, Garth April, Rudy Paige, Jake Schatz (co-c), Shunsuke Nunomaki, Brendon O’Connor, Michael Stolberg, Kotaro Yatabe, Conraad van Vuuren, Jaba Bregvadze, Jarred Adams
Reserves: Leni Apisai, Chris Eves, Hencus van Wyk, Justin Downey, Mitch Jacobson, Naoto Saitao, Shogo Nakano, JJ Engelbrecht
Rebels (15-1): Dane Haylett-Petty, Marika Koroibete, Reece Hodge, Billy Meakes, Andrew Kellaway, Matt To’omua, Frank Lomani, Isi Naisarani, Rob Leota, Angus Cottrell, Matt Philip, Ross Haylett-Petty, Jermaine Ainsley, Anaru Rangi, Fereti Sa’aga
Reserves: Steve Misa, Cameron Orr, Ruan Smith, Luke Jones, Michael Wells, Richard Hardwick, Theo Strang, Andrew Deegan
Players to watch
For the Rebels, keep an eye on Lomani, Kellaway, and Leota.
The Fijian livewire Lomani earns his first start at nine, combining with To’omua as the latest halves combo. Frank was a standout for Fiji in RWC and will bring real excitement to the Rebels game. He must form a partnership with To’omua really quickly, and allow him to play his aggressive game at flyhalf. With solid partnerships in the halves, we stand a good chance of beating the Brumbies and Waratahs and hopefully set the pace in the conference in the early rounds.
Kellaway, the former Waratahs and Aus U20’s winger, returns to Australia after a stint with Northhampton. A self-described utility, Kellaway adds real pace, and a good highball option that can hold the last line of defence. There is stiff competition for a spot in the backline, so I expect Kellaway to take his chances and sore a few trys this weekend. If not, Tupou or English are waiting for their change on the wing.
Rob Leota – homegrown Victorian and registered big unit
To my knowledge, I don’t think Leota has started at 7 for the Rebels. He’s been used more at a replacement, covering both 6 and 8. For this match, he’s been given first chance to impress the coaches in 2020. He now presents the Rebels with a physically strong 7 who will play the traditional breakdown Jackyl role. I’ll be keen to see how his fitness holds up towards the end of the game, but I have faith in the big unit. There’s plenty of competition for the number 7 jersey, so take your chance, Rob.
For the Sunwolves, look out for Bam Bam Ben Te’o. The former NRL and ex-England/Lions centre joined the Sunwolves for 2020, after failing to secure a deal in England. He’d be someone who would probably still break bodies in a tackle, and perhaps he might have some crafty Samoan flair up his sleeve, but at 32 he may be past his prime. Given he’s new to Super Rugby, he might need a few weeks to get up to pace with the game, I think Reece and Billy will work him out fairly early in the game, opening up a big midfield channel for a try fest.
Frankly, I think it will be one-way traffic. As a Sunwolces player, how do you find the motivation to excel, given that your home union has given up on you, and won’t fund you beyond this season? I’d imagine they’d feel like dead men walking. The big test is this weekend; the first game in a long farewell tour. I hope they come to play each week, but I see them struggling.
And yes, I think the decision to punt the Sunwolves is completely ludicrous, but here we are.
The Rebels, motivated by the disappointment of just missing finals in 2018 & 2019, will make a big statement in Fukuoka. Some new combinations to build, and some old one to reignite. Aside from some pundits concerns of a weak Rebels pack, I think the Rebels will seek to build early, and dominate in the second half when the replacements take the field. The Rebels will feel disappointed if they don’t walk away from this match without a bonus point.
Rebels by 20.
Kick off: 12:45pm Local
Level Five Stadium, Fukuoka
Referee: Ben O’Keffe
AR1: Shuhei Kubo
AR2: Tasuku Kawahara
TMO: Minoru Fuji