By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Whatever the problems with the 18-team Super Rugby format that was unceremoniously dumped last year, and there were plenty, it is becoming increasingly clear that the decision to expand the competition to Argentina and Japan was not among them.
The Jaguares are flourishing in their third season under new coach Mauro Ledesma and their 54-24 demolition of the three-times champion Bulls on Saturday moved them up to second place in the South Africa conference.
Backing up from an Australasian tour when they won all four matches, three of them against former holders of the title, the magnificent style of the seven-try rout of the Bulls confirmed that the Jaguares are now a genuine force to be reckoned with.
“It’s something that happened naturally,” Ledesma said of the team’s recent run of form. “We saw it coming on a daily basis… we studied a lot and the players became stronger as a group, more confident. “
While that might be considered a little overdue for a team that is essentially the twice World Cup semi-finalist Argentina national team in black, Japan’s Sunwolves have no such pedigree to draw upon.
The Sunwolves have suffered plenty of hammerings and managed just five wins in total over their first three seasons but they finally put two victories together by beating South Africa’s Stormers in Hong Kong on Saturday.
“We created history today,” Sunwolves coach Jamie Joseph said. “We’ve had some lean times, no doubt. But really we’re headed in the right direction and I think that’s really pleasing for the players.”
Their victory over the Queensland Reds last week was a 63-28 thrashing but overcoming the Stormers 26-23 in the sweltering Hong Kong heat — their first win away from the Japanese capital — required a drop goal after the hooter from Hayden Parker.
The flyhalf applied the finishing touch but that he was in the position to do so was the result of the never-say-die attitude of the Sunwolves team, who had to turn over the ball and march 70 metres down the pitch to get into range.
“They worked their way up the field and it was exceptional brilliance that won the game — well played,” Stormers coach Robbie Fleck admitted.
The Jaguares could yet challenge for the playoffs and if the Sunwolves can stay in more games until the last 10 minutes, the Reds might not be the only one of their Australian conference rivals to taste defeat at the hands of the Japanese this season.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by John O’Brien)