Super Rugby: Sunwolves' Michael Little talks team's future, Test hopes

Michael Little Power Sport Images/Getty Images

He's the son of an All Blacks great, yet Michael Little could end up wearing the red and white of Japan as he continues to star for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby.

And he has a message for those who want to bring an end to the Sunwolves when the current SANZAAR broadcast deal is up. The New Zealander is adamant the Japanese franchise, who are playing their third season of Super Rugby, have added to the competition on the whole.

It's a statement that's hard to argue, given the Sunwolves last week picked up their third victory of the year, a 42-37 triumph over the Bulls in Singapore. Furthermore, they have only once conceded more than 50 points in 2018 as opposed to three times last year.

"The boys love it here," Little told ESPN. "At the end of the day we're holding our own, we're pushing teams; winning a couple of games. I certainly enjoying being here with all the Japanese boys; the South Africans; the Australians; we've got Georgians as well.

"It's just a place with an opportunity, we're growing; we hope to see it [the franchise] retained. But at the moment there's not too much talk about that, it's just about focusing on this week, next week, and then see where it goes from there."

Little, along with fellow Kiwi Hayden Parker, has been at the heart of the Sunwolves' improvement. The North Harbour product sits in Super Rugby's top 20 for both total runs [108] and run metres [919]. He is also averaging one line break and 1.7 offloads per game.

Having made the move from New Zealand after missing out on a full-time contract with one of the Kiwi franchises, Little credits the his mother's wise words for his arrival on the Super Rugby scene.

"Initially after the ITM Cup season a couple of years back, I was lucky, I got a training gig with the Highlanders and spent a bit of time down there preseason," he told ESPN. "But then a contract in Japan came up and Mum always said, 'take all your opportunities'.

"So just luckily enough I think I had a good season over there [in Japan's second division], and Browny (Tony Brown) came over to coach the Sunwolves and I got a call from Jamie [Joseph] asking if sometime during the season I wanted to have a go. So it was a bit lucky, stuff just falling into place that I ended up here, and I'm pretty happy."

The Sunwolves have taken on a more global look this season, Kiwi coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown bolstering the local Japanese talent with some international quality. That strategy has drawn criticism in some quarters, but without the added international experience the Sunwolves may not have had the same upward trend they have enjoyed in 2018.

It's also giving the game greater exposure in Japan ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup, and Little is already seeing the off-field benefits of the Sunwolves' improvement.

"Personally, the Japanese people are extremely supportive," he said. "I'll come off the field after a game and people will be giving me gifts; asking me for a signature. I know the boys put a lot of time back into the community; we like to leave our footprint behind.

"Rugby as a whole is growing, obviously the World Cup next year a lot of people are excited for that and we're excited for that. I've only been there a short time and I've only seen small improvements. But 15 years ago rugby wasn't that big [in Japan], so it's pretty cool."

Contracted with the Sunwolves through the 2019 Super Rugby season, it may be that Little's form spruiks the interest of franchises back home in New Zealand. He also played for Fiji at Under 20s level, potentially giving him three options to choose from at Test level.

Joining his father as an All Black would obviously be the toughest route, and it may prove that life in Japan is too good to ignore.

"I'm not too sure at the moment, I'm committed to these guys this year and next year," he told ESPN. "I'm keen to play international rugby wherever it is, so at the end of the day if Japan want me I'll be happy to go with them. I've talked a little bit with Fiji but it's been hard learning two languages, let alone a third one, so we'll see I guess."

In the much shorter term, Little's focus is on the Waratahs this week in Sydney. Beaten 50-29 by NSW in Tokyo earlier in the year, the Sunwolves again showed scoring points isn't their problem.

"Yeah you could say, they've [NSW] got firepower all the way through the backline," he said when asked whether it was as simple as making a few more tackles. "In their forward pack they've got some great players as well. So we've just got to do what we do and hopefully you'd think we're going to score the points, it's been like that all year. We've maybe been letting a few points slip.

"So we'll see, it's an exciting time, you get to play rugby for a living and you get to play every Saturday; it's the hard work you put in in between that makes a difference. It should be good."