It is Sayonara to the Sunwolves Super Rugby franchise in 2021

It is Sayonara to the Sunwolves Super Rugby franchise in 2021
HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 02: Jason Emery of the Sunwolves looks on during the round three Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Sunwolves at FMG Stadium Waikato on March 02, 2019 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

After a four year experiment of expansion into the competition, the reports have been confirmed.  So it will be ‘Sayonara’ to the Sunwolves Super Rugby franchise in 2021.

SANZAAR; the organizing body of Super Rugby, confirmed what had been assumed widely as truth. Japan had withdrawn its financial backing of the Sunwolves franchise, which left the Southern Hemisphere powers the opportunity to reduce the number of competing teams back to 14.

The Sunwolves will drop out of the existing 15-team Super Rugby competition at the end of the 2020 season. Super Rugby will, therefore, comprise the existing five New Zealand teams, four South African teams, four Australian teams and the Jaguares from South America. The agreed format will be played within the next commercial broadcast window starting in 2021.

It is Sayonara to the Sunwolves Super Rugby franchise in 2021

In the official media release, the sense is that ‘the numbers did not stack up’. That once the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) pulled its contribution, the yield from broadcasting, merchandise and in popularity stakes, showed that the experiment had not secured the Sunwolves Super Rugby future.

After fours years – five when you include the final 2020 season – it has not been the success everyone imagined. That is, in the eyes of SANZAAR partners South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina. The Jaguares will remain, with the Japanese side jettisoned when research revealed that a round-robin format was favoured by stakeholders.

While a truth, how a team from the host nation of the next Rugby World Cup can be ‘axed’ is questionable. More so, the timing – although, coincidentally the current broadcasting deal ends in 2020. So even while it is Sayonara to the Sunwolves Super Rugby franchise, in 2021 will it be the right option.

It is just….it seems unfair, when the Sunwolves are developing the game in Asia.

The five-year short history of the Tokyo-based side might be extremely hard to replicate. How can JRFU now broaden the appeal of the game without Super Rugby exposure? It seems to be a task that needs World Rugby assistance more than ever.

World Rugby needs to support Rugby in Japan

The reports that proceeded the official announcement seemed to be a surprise to some, but a reality to many. The geographical position, the degree of difficulty in managing the expansion of Super Rugby, and the culling of two South African teams. All factors that have led to this far-reaching decision.

Japan host the World Cup in September, and after the Webb Ellis Cup departs its shores, what can Asian rugby fans look forward to?

Here, World Rugby must support JRFU. On the cusp of Tier One recognition, yet still placed outside the top rankings, the recent call for a World League – and the recent incarnation of the Nations Cup proposition – means the Brave Blossoms will need competition to support their Top League domestic fixtures.

The scheduling of the Japan Top League in 2021 will bring its own complications. Rich Freeman noted that “unless there is a massive seasonal shift in the way rugby is organized, Japan’s proposed games in the Rugby Championship in August or September, and three tests against touring sides from Europe in July would come off the back of six months of relative inactivity and would simply be preseason games for the domestic league”.

If questionable, the reasons that the Sunwolves Super Rugby experiment is ending may have been inevitable. Political reasons may include displeasure with the metrics – included in the Australian conference, the viewing numbers for matches in Japan would not have met the expectations of Rugby Australia. And, the bitter taste left by Japan supporting the successful French bid to host the 2023 RWC might have satisfied South African decision makers.

Yet, apart from the obvious, fans might wonder ‘how motivated will Sunwolves Super Rugby players be now?’

That is difficult to judge. Rugby is about pride in the jersey, as much as your own success. The local players, as well as the foreign-born ones, will need to be inspired. Recent victory away from home will be positive. Incentives may be required, in the same way, that match entertainment is required to get fans through the gates.

It is a big loss and one that shows how ruthless sports administration can be. The news is not good for Japan, but for the Super Rugby fans who wished for the more ‘understandable’ 14-team, round-robin draw, in 2021 they say ‘Sayonara’ to the experiment that was once heralded as expansion. Proved now not to be a panacea, but an encumbrance to the continued place of Super Rugby as the leading competition in rugby.

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