Japan's Sunwolves out of Super Rugby tournament after 2020
By DENNIS PASSA
(AP) -- Five matches into a fourth season in Super Rugby, Japan-based Sunwolves learned Friday their fifth season would be their last.
Depending on who you believe - money issues with the Tokyo side, pressure from South African television over the awkward time zones in Tokyo and Singapore where the Sunwolves play their home matches, or just a too-fast, too-soon approach to expansion by governing body SANZAAR - the Sunwolves will take the field on Saturday night in Singapore against South Africa's Lions knowing their days in the southern hemisphere competition are numbered.
SANZAAR said in a statement that "following a substantial review of Super Rugby over the last 18 months via a strategic planning process" it plans to have a 14-team, round-robin format by the end of the 2020 season.
"The decision to further consolidate the competition format to a 14-team round-robin was not taken lightly, SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos said. "It has involved some detailed analysis and a thorough review of the current and future rugby landscape, tournament costs, commercial and broadcast considerations and player welfare."
The 14 teams in Super Rugby will include five from New Zealand (Blues, Crusaders, Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs), four each from South Africa (Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks) and Australia (New South Wales, ACT, Queensland and Melbourne) and the Jaguares from Argentina after 2020.
The Sunwolves have won only seven of their 43 matches since joining the competition in 2016. The news comes as Japan prepares to host the Rugby World Cup later this year.
SANZAAR had been criticized, based on its hope for increased television revenue, for expanding the original Super 12 tournament in the first place - from 14 to 15 teams in 2011, to 18 in 2016, back to 15 in 2018 and now back to 14 in 2021.
Marinos suggested that the Sunwolves' financial situation was a big part of the decision to cut the team after 2020.
"SANZAAR was advised by the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) in early March that they would no longer be in a position to financially underwrite the Sunwolves future participation post 2020," Marinos said. "The future of the Sunwolves will now be determined by the JRFU which has determined that Super Rugby no longer remains the best pathway for the development of players for the national team."
"However, Japan and the Asia Pacific region remain strategically important to SANZAAR. We will continue to work with the JRFU, Japan Super Rugby Association (JSRA) and other stakeholders, as we have done throughout this review process, to establish a truly professional league structure in Japan in which current and potentially new teams could participate."
Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle backed up Marinos' comments.
"The reality is that, as much as we see Japan being an incredibly important part of the future of rugby, when the JRFU withdrew their underlying support for the Sunwolves and they couldn't find another way to guarantee that underwrite, it left the SANZAAR partners in an exposed position financially," Castle told Australian Associated Press.
"And we didn't think that was in the best interests of the SANZAAR joint venture partnerships."
Marinos said it's possible a Super Rugby Asia-Pacific competition could be started which would include Japan, the Pacific Islands, North and South America and Hong Kong.
"The concept includes linking high-performance programs of such nations into the potential competition structure. The aim is to deliver a competitive and sustainable international pathway that can align to both current and future considerations around the international calendar."
Marinos said the new round-robin format and 14-team lineup will see each team play every other team home or away each season. That means 13 matches for each team, with two byes, in the regular season with the number of home and away matches varying from six to seven based on a two-year alternate match schedule.
He said that would lead to a new three-week, "best-versus-best, super-charged," top-six finals series. The top two-ranked teams in the standings will receive a bye in the first week before hosting semifinal matches against the winners from a knockout round between teams ranked three to six.
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Updated March 22, 2019