Sunwolves prepare for Super Rugby season with higher purpose

FILE - In this May 12, 2018, file photo, Sunwolves team members celebrate after defeating Reds during their match in Tokyo. With the Rugby World Cup looming, there’s a renewed sense of urgency for the Sunwolves as the Japan-based club prepares for its fourth season in Super Rugby. (Takuya Inaba/Kyodo News via AP, File)

TOKYO — With the Rugby World Cup looming, there's a renewed sense of urgency for the Sunwolves as the Japan-based club prepares for its fourth season in Super Rugby.

The Sunwolves struggled for wins in their first two seasons in the competition but showed signs of a breakthrough last year when they won three matches. The team's more pressing task this season is helping Japan's players prepare to compete in a World Cup that Japan will host, the first time the rugby's global showpiece will be held outside of the traditional rugby strongholds.

The Sunwolves kick off their 2019 Super Rugby campaign on Saturday in Singapore against the Durban, South Africa-based Sharks.

New head coach Tony Brown and Jamie Joseph, head coach of the national team, will synchronize their efforts to ensure the best Japanese players are in peak condition by September when the World Cup kicks off in Japan.

"It is 100 percent crucial the Sunwolves are aligned with Japan in the way we play the game and the players we use, as everything is geared toward the World Cup," Brown told Japan's domestic media when he announced his initial 29-man squad.

Joseph coached the Sunwolves last season and says the Super Rugby franchise will play a vital role in helping Japan prepare for the World Cup.

"In a World Cup year my core responsibility is to prepare the national team, especially as Japan is hosting the tournament," Joseph said. "Tony being at the helm as head coach will allow us to continue the hard work we invested last season, as well as prepare any players also in the national team for the World Cup."

Among the established Japanese players returning for the Sunwolves side are captain Michael Leitch, Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Fumiaki Tanaka and Kazuki Himeno, all of whom are expected to represent Japan in the World Cup.

Foreign-born returnees include Pieter Labuschagne and Grant Hattingh, the uncapped South African-born backrowers who have been included in Joseph's preliminary World Cup squad, and Australian lock James Moore.

Finding the right balance for players on Japan's national team will be crucial, with more players than usual eventually available to the Sunwolves.

Brown is also an assistant coach for the national teams and says the players in the selection frame for the World Cup will need to prove themselves in the Super Rugby competition.

Brown, a flyhalf who played 18 tests for the New Zealand All Blacks from 1999-2001, is the Sunwolves' fourth head coach in as many years. He was the team's attack coach in 2018 and will be assisted this season by Scott Hansen, who continues in his role as an assistant coach.

The Sunwolves will play six home games in Tokyo and two in Singapore. Their schedule will also see them play four games in Australia, two in New Zealand and one each in South Africa and Argentina.

Japan stunned two-time champion South Africa at the 2015 World Cup in England in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament.

That match ended with Japan, coached by Australian Eddie Jones — who now coaches England — edging the Springboks 34-32. It ensured none of the highly-ranked teams will take Japan lightly in any circumstances.

Fullback Ayumu Goromaru scored 24 points for Japan. But Goromaru, who has since had unsuccessful stints with Queensland Reds in Super Rugby and French side Toulon, is not likely to play for Japan in this World Cup.

The pressure this time will be on the hosts to advance from a tough Pool A that includes Ireland, Scotland, Russia and Samoa.

The Sept. 20 to Nov. 2 Rugby World Cup will include 48 matches across 12 cities stretching from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the southwest.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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