Rising Sunwolves give themselves, Japan rugby timely boost
HAMILTON, New Zealand (AP) — Just when they needed it, the Sunwolves gave themselves and Japanese rugby a significant boost.
The Tokyo-based team claimed its first away win in Super Rugby on Saturday, and arguably its biggest success since joining the tournament in 2016, with a shock 30-15 victory at the two-time champion Chiefs of New Zealand.
The Sunwolves' win — a seventh in just over three seasons in Super Rugby — might yet help Japan's representative retain its place in the southern hemisphere competition with its worth to the long-term future of the tournament under scrutiny.
It's also bound to spark excitement at home for Japan's Rugby World Cup at the end of the year, the first time the showpiece has been held outside Western Europe, Australasia and South Africa.
The Sunwolves have a cosmopolitan team, infused with New Zealand, Australian, South African and Pacific Island players. But it was Japan flanker Shuhei Matsuhashi who set them on the way to their win over the Chiefs in Hamilton with the first of their three tries. His score came inside two minutes.
Tongan-born lock Uwe Helu, another Japan international, and South African winger Gerhard van den Heever also crossed to end a run of 24 away games without a win for the Sunwolves.
The Sunwolves and the Chiefs went into the match winless this season, with the Chiefs coming off a 54-17 loss to the ACT Brumbies.
The Chiefs, with All Blacks Brodie Retallick in the second row and Damian McKenzie at flyhalf, set out to atone but were overwhelmed by a Sunwolves team which led 23-3 at halftime.
"It's pretty amazing," the Sunwolves' New Zealand-born captain Michael Little said. "The boys put in a lot of hard work this week and we knew we could do it."
While one notable streak ended, another was extended in round three when New Zealand's Crusaders, the two-time defending champions, stretched their winning run to 18 matches by dominating the Queensland Reds' scrum in a 22-12 victory in Australia.
The Crusaders held 60 percent of possession and made 46 fewer tackles as they repeatedly won the battle of the breakdown. They scored four tries to two for the Reds.
"It's a tough place to come over to get a win," Crusaders captain Matt Todd said.
Completing the series of away wins, the Bulls and the Stormers were victorious on the road in South Africa.
In the final game of the round in Buenos Aires, the Jaguares scored two late tries and hung on for a 23-19 win over the Auckland-based Blues.
The Blues lost the ball five meters from the tryline with a minute left, then lost the ball again in a scrum-feed, allowing the Jaguares to kick the ball out of bounds and win their second of three matches this season.
The Crusaders and the Melbourne-based Rebels are the only unbeaten sides. The Crusaders are three from three and the Rebels two from two after Australia's form team beat another previously undefeated side, the Highlanders, on Friday.
In South Africa, the Sharks' winning start to the season was ended by the Stormers, who arrived in Durban with a plan to play risk-free rugby. The Stormers' lineout and scrum was efficient and SP Marais kicked 11 points in a tight 16-11 win.
The Sharks, rated one of South Africa's strongest contenders this season, paid for a lack of discipline which resulted in a big penalty count against the home team and three yellow cards, two in the first half.
The Pretoria-based Bulls won 30-12 at the Johannesburg-based Lions, who have made the Super Rugby final the last three seasons but already look out of contention this time after starting with two losses in three games.
The Lions sit bottom of the South African conference and trailed 17-0 on Saturday to a try by Bulls No. 8 Duane Vermeulen and 12 points from the boot of Handre Pollard before they replied.