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Axe falls on Japan's Sunwolves, months before World Cup

The globe-trotting competition will return to 14 teams and its previous round-robin format from 2021, scrapping the unpopular and convoluted conference system.

The Sunwolves score a try against the Reds in their Super Rugby match on 16 March 2019. Picture: @sunwolves/Twitter

SYDNEY - Japan's Sunwolves will be axed from Super Rugby from 2021, the governing body said on Friday, ditching Asia's first team in the competition just six months before Japan hosts the World Cup.

Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) said it wasn't prepared to bankroll the perennial wooden-spooners after Japan's rugby board withdrew financial support.

The globe-trotting competition will return to 14 teams and its previous round-robin format from 2021, scrapping the unpopular and convoluted conference system.

Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos said the Sunwolves decision was "not taken lightly", and held open the possibility of a Super Rugby Asia-Pacific competition also involving Pacific nations, the Americas and Hong Kong.

"Sanzaar was advised by the Japan Rugby Football Union in early March that they would no longer be in a position to financially underwrite the Sunwolves' future participation post 2020," Marinos said in a statement.

Reports say much of the opposition to Asia's first Super Rugby team came from South Africa, whose teams were opposed to travelling to Tokyo and Singapore for the Sunwolves' home games.

Japan's Kyodo news agency said Sanzaar had told the Sunwolves to pay a "non-negotiable" participation fee of about 1 billion yen ($9 million) a year to stay in Super Rugby.

The Tokyo-based Sunwolves were introduced with great fanfare along with Argentina's Jaguares in 2016 as Super Rugby, seeking new markets, expanded to 18 teams.

Both teams survived a cull when the tournament shrank back to 15 sides in 2018, after the sprawling, globe-crossing new format proved unwieldy for teams and fans.

But results on the pitch were slow in coming for the Sunwolves, who were embarrassed 92-17 by the Cheetahs in their first season - before winning a breakthrough first victory, against the Jaguares, the following week.

Two more wins followed in 2017, improving to three in 2018, but with a litany of heavy defeats along the way, including a 94-7 hiding by the Lions in 2017.

Now in their fourth season, they won away for the first time earlier this month, beating the Chiefs 30-15 - only their seventh win in 51 games.

The Sunwolves have also faced criticism about the number of non-Japanese in their team, raising questions over their core mission of developing home-grown players.

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