Japanese rugby officials lamented the decision by Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) yesterday to axe the Sunwolves from the Super Rugby league after the 2020 season.
Sunwolves chief executive Yuji Watase admitted that he had feared for the worst after Super Rugby dropped three teams last year.
"We always knew we needed to be competitive and win more games. Ever since Super Rugby went from 18 to 15 teams, we were concerned about our future," he told reporters in Tokyo.
The Sunwolves were introduced in 2016 alongside Argentina's Jaguares in hopes of expanding the competition to 18 teams and tapping on new audiences and markets in Asia and South America.
But this strategy never really materialised and there was much unhappiness - reportedly by the South Africa teams who disliked the long trips to Tokyo and Singapore for the Sunwolves' home games - and fans over the unpopular three-conference system.
The competition will return to 14 teams and a round-robin format from 2021.
'CAN HANDLE LOSING'
They played in front of a full house of 25,000 in Tokyo in their opening game in February 2016, with a predicted bloodbath not materialising. They went down to South Africa's Golden Lions 26-13, with coach Mark Hammett saying: "We can always handle losing if we know the players have given everything." Wins would prove to be rare.
GETTING OFF THE MARK
The Sunwolves scored a momentous first victory in front of their home fans in April 2016 with a pulsating 36-28 result against Argentinian new boys Jaguares. Their celebrations were short-lived - it was the only win in their debut season, which also saw one draw and 13 defeats.
After three long years of trying, the Sunwolves finally scored an away win with a 30-15 upset of the Waikato Chiefs earlier this month. However, it came just weeks before the team learnt that they would be sent into exile after next season.
Another issue was money. Japan's Kyodo news agency said Sanzaar had told the Sunwolves to pay a "non-negotiable" participation fee of about 1 billion yen (S$12 million) a year to stay in Super Rugby.
The Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) denied pulling funding for the team, but said it had been unable to reach a deal with Sanzaar.
"It was not that we were unwilling to underwrite the Sunwolves, we just couldn't agree on the financial terms presented to us by Sanzaar with other demands on our budget," said JRFU chairman Noriyuki Sakamoto.
Sanzaar chief 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.
The timing could not be worse though for World Rugby, as the global governing body has focused on a message of inclusion for emerging nations ahead of the Rugby World Cup starting in September in Japan. It is the first time the continent is hosting the event.
The Sunwolves were originally intended to be the de facto Japanese national team, a side good enough to beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup. But many top Japanese players opted to play for rival Super Rugby sides or the domestic Top League teams in Japan.
This left the Sunwolves having to fill their roster mainly with second-tier players from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
While the Sunwolves have shown steady improvement over the past three seasons, the team won just seven times in 51 games with a litany of heavy defeats along the way, including a 94-7 hiding by the Lions in 2017.
The Sunwolves face the South African side today at the National Stadium. Head coach Tony Brown was reluctant to discuss Sanzaar's announcement but stressed his team will remain professional and continue to play good rugby.
"The game is tough enough as it is, you can't look to two years' time. You've got to look to this Saturday because we are playing a pretty good side," he said.
• Tickets are available at sportshub.com.sg/SuperRugby and start from $15.