COVID-19, No future and heavy defeats: Life at the Sunwolves

Jake Schatz carries the ball for the Sunwolves during their Super Rugby clash with the Chiefs in Tokyo, February 15, 2020 BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images

They have just 12 more games. Their home games remain shrouded in uncertainty. And they're coming off consecutive 45-plus point defeats.

Welcome to life with the Sunwolves: The Japanese Super Rugby franchise whose existence will cease - save for an unlikely run to the finals - on Friday May 30th when they face the Brumbies in Canberra.

Coincidentally, the Sunwolves face the Brumbies on Friday night in Wollongong, a match that was moved from Hanazono after the COVID-19 [Coronavirus] forced tournament organisers SANZAAR into action.

If the Sunwolves weren't up against it already, having back-to-back home games against the Brumbies and Crusaders moved to offshore venues - and the high likelihood that others may follow suit - has only added to the team's challenge in what is their farewell Super Rugby season.

"Management are dealing with it more than what the players have to; for us, we knew that we were going to be on the road most of the year anyway, so it was more just a change of scenery," Sunwolves back-rower Jake Schatz told ESPN from the team's current base in Coogee, Sydney.

"We were always going to be doing lots of travel, so it was more behind the scenes, they were working a lot harder than us [logistically]. We've just got to focus on rugby and the next week; we've had a couple of hard losses. So we just need to get back on the winning bandwagon and work out what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong."

The coronavirus is just another speedbump the Sunwolves have had to deal with since they were told they had no long-term future in Super Rugby midway through last season, a decision SANZAAR officials arrived at when the Japan Rugby Football Union refused to stump up $[U.S]10 million to bankroll the franchise's future.

How would the Sunwolves attract players for only one season? Would fans walk away from the club given it had no long-term future? How would they compete in a competition that still includes some of the game's greatest players?

They were all valid questions.

As for what he saw in the opportunity with the Sunwolves, Queenslander Schatz says the positives outweighed the negatives as he plotted his next career move following two seasons in England.

"I'd been overseas at London Irish and was looking to come home, so the Sunwolves presented an opportunity to come home and play Super Rugby again, that's how it all worked out," Schatz said.

Was there any hesitation then given the Sunwolves were, in effect, on the clock?

"Yes and no, like I said it was a bit of an opportunity either way. Rugby in Japan, especially, has grown so much, you get 20,000 people to your home games in Japan so you can't really complain on that front."

And that has been the effect of last year's Rugby World Cup in which Japan made the quarterfinals for the first time, having upset both Ireland and Scotland as they topped Pool A to book a knockout game against eventual champions South Africa.

Japan's Top League has enjoyed a surge in popularity as a result with crowd figures in some regions outstripping those of the long established J-League football competition, but there was always a question mark as to whether that support would transfer to the Sunwolves.

Those doubts were quickly cast aside in Round 1.

Playing their opening home match against the Rebels in Fukuoka, the Sunwolves drew more than 10,000 people while two weeks later they were greeted by a near-capacity crowd at their regular base: Tokyo's Prince Chichibu Stadium.

"They love it, the support's great, the people get around it; they buy the merchandise; they turn up to the games; you can't really ask for much more from the fans than that," Schatz said of the Sunwolves fans. "I'd say the rugby support in Japan in general has gone through the roof.

"Coming off the World Cup there was a bit of buzz around rugby in Japan, so to get that following just makes it even more special when you play in front of a good crowd.

"So hopefully that continues to grow and we keep our supporter base at least for the rest of the season, and hopefully we can do them proud."

Whether SANZAAR turns out to regret its hardline financial demand for the Sunwolves, will be seen in the run to the next five-year broadcast cycle in 2025, but there is little doubt the power struggle for new territories and redrawn competitions is well and truly underway.

SANZAAR boss Andy Marinos last week told reporters the alliance was doing its due diligence in assessing the opportunities in Japan but wasn't concerned by rumours the Six Nations had approached the JRFU, perhaps due to similar reports linking the Springboks with a move to the northern hemisphere.

"It's not about who gets there first, it's about growing the game in that market," Marinos said. "Ultimately we can do all the hard work we can because we want to align with Japan, we want to grow into the Asian market and their executives could turn around and say 'we want to align with the northern hemisphere,' and we can't control that.

"I think what we've got to be working hard towards is how can we best develop rugby in that country so that they can have a competitive national team. And then it's going to be about which hemisphere is going to have a bigger appetite to include them in their structures going forward."

All the Sunwolves can do in the meantime is give their absolute all for the remainder of the year and, in Schatz's case, play as well as he can so that he is left with more than one offer for his next professional move.

He says that could be in Japan - where a new Top League competition could commence as early as next year - or back home in Australia with another Super Rugby franchise.

Given the spread of the coronavirus and threats of travel bans, there may be a couple more curve balls to confront before the sun sets on the Sunwolves and the howls at Prince Chichibu fall silent for good. But Schatz and his fellow squad members from around the globe, will just get on with the job.

And that job continues against the Brumbies in Wollongong on Friday night.

"The Brumbies are always a tough challenge, they're forward orientated and that's probably the area where we have to aim up," he told ESPN. "I think last week we let ourselves down in first-up tackles; we've had some good starts to games and I really like to play the game plan we're playing, but we really need to keep ball in hand and be able to make those tackles.

"And the Brumbies biggest [strength] is really that set-piece area, so we really need to focus there as well."