As the scrum packed down for the second time, the howling only increased in volume.

From all parts of the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, fans draped in red began the signature call of the Sunwolves.

Before heading to the match in Tokyo, I'd been told about the Sunwolves' unique chorus, but was sceptical.

Surely not. Not in a country of mild-mannered, impeccable politeness, where train conductors bow as they enter each carriage and orderly queues are maintained in impossibly busy situations.

Advertisement

Surely, Japanese rugby fans weren't about to spark memories of Warren Zevon's 1978 hit, or a scene on an Alberta prairie.

But here they were, howling and baying, and Hurricanes captain TJ Perenara later said it was one of the best atmospheres he had experienced.

Three hours before kickoff at the stadium, and there are already plenty of fans, mainly "salarymen" milling around the concourse.

Various stalls are being set up, including a Devil Kebab outlet and a Jim Beam Highball truck. But there aren't many options, as supporters can bring their own food and drink.

Nearby street vendors are selling bento boxes and noodles, while other fans purchase cans of Asahi beer and Kirin The Strong from the local convenience store.

There's a wide array of Sunwolves-themed merchandise for sale — cushions, boxer shorts, four types of key rings, earrings, phone covers, fashion bags, collector cards, player masks and paper fans — and posters everywhere to promote the impending Rugby World Cup.

The Hurricanes match is a notable occasion: the first home night game in Sunwolves history and also the first match since Sanzaar announced the franchise would be axed from 2021.

Supporters are still feeling the pain.

Advertisement

"We are very sad, very disappointed," says 37-year-old Haruki, an office worker from Tokyo. "It's a tragedy for Japanese rugby. We can't imagine what is going on after 2020. Even next season, we don't know what is happening. We want to keep the Sunwolves, whatever its form."

"We can't understand it," added Okuta, 53, from behind a spectacular wolf mask, which he designed and painted himself. "Why now? It's hard to understand."

The passion is evident in the costumes, the excitement and the general buzz around a full hour before kickoff, as a smattering of expats mix with the local fans.

Sunwolves of Tokyo ... a fan dresses up for the occasion. Photo / Getty Images
Sunwolves of Tokyo ... a fan dresses up for the occasion. Photo / Getty Images

"Top League teams belong to the company but this team is for everyone," said Haruki. "That is the biggest reason."

The domestic competition (Top League), featuring the likes of Panasonic Wild Knights, Toyota Verblitz and Kobelco Steelers, has increased in profile in recent years, helped by some big-name recruits, but teams are still aligned with companies rather than communities, and many in the crowd are employees.

"It's quite different ... a lot of people attend those games because of Giri, a sense of duty, which is entrenched in the culture," says veteran Japanese rugby journalist Rich Freeman. "This is a team that everyone can support, a team of the people."

Although rugby remains a niche sport, the size of Japan means the media room houses more than 40 journalists, as well as plates of rice crackers, chocolates and matcha tea.

It's a cracking atmosphere, even before kickoff.

After a comedy skit on the big screen and an acrobatic cheerleading routine, the Sunwolves enter the arena, accompanied by fireworks — which create a sea of red — and wolf howls.

The game is an entertaining affair, especially in the first half, as the Sunwolves find open spaces and seem prepared to attack from anywhere.

The stadium erupts for their first try, and when a crossfield kick sets up a spectacular second touchdown, the noise is deafening. Forget any perceptions about the Japanese being reserved.

The big screens display instant written explanations of the referee's calls but this seems a knowledgeable crowd. They sense the big moments and react accordingly.

And then there are the howls. It's quite something to hear thousands of people howling in unison whenever there is a penalty, or especially around scrum time.

This is genuine passion.

The tension ramps up in the second half, as the Sunwolves try to preserve a sizeable lead. The experience and composure of the Hurricanes prove the difference in the end, and the Wellington-based side earn further respect as they conduct a post-match bow in front of the main grandstand.

Stadium workers and volunteers form a queue to farewell and high-five departing fans, while Perenara holds court at a packed press conference.

"It was awesome, the way the Sunwolves fans got behind their team and the energy they showed," says Perenara. "Even though they're not cheering for us, they are cheering for the game of rugby, and it's great to be a part of it."

"Sometimes you can't hear yourself, which is good," says Sunwolves co-captain Dan Pryor. "The Hurricanes boys have said it was awesome for them, never seen something like that."

Coach Tony Brown feels the Sunwolves have, yet again, proved their value.

"Everyone who watched it believes that we are good enough to beat those teams," says Brown.

"Everyone loves playing in Tokyo. Game was awesome, crowd loved it. That's all I can say. But Sanzaar is Sanzaar."

When asked later about their termination, Brown deflects sympathy for the coaches and players.

"Disappointing for everyone in the organisation," says Brown. "Especially all those people who have built this brand from nothing, creating amazing crowds, probably the best in Super Rugby. They enjoy the games a bit differently to other countries."

The ultimate decision to terminate the Sunwolves had many layers, including pressure from broadcasters, power from South Africa and a divided, far-from-proactive Japanese Rugby Union.

From afar, the Sunwolves might appear a geographical curiosity, an artificial creation brought in to fill a dot on a world map.

But in the space of four seasons, despite limited success on the field, they've engendered a passion and tribalism that is rare, if non-existent in the rest of the competition.

As one Sunwolves player said later as he mingled with a few fans in a pub near the stadium: "What other team is filling their stadium every week? What other team is growing their crowd like us? They've started something ... and now it's gone."

Michael Burgess was in Tokyo with the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.