Japan head coach Jamie Joseph hit back at criticism over his handling of the Sunwolves saying that from a national team's point of view things went well, though not necessarily the way they were initially intended to go.
"I thought it was the perfect plan," he told Kyodo News this week at the Japan training camp in Miyazaki, adding that his mandate is to get the Brave Blossoms into the knockout stage of the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off on Sept. 20 in Tokyo.
A season that started with so much hope ended with a whimper with just two wins, though even more upsetting for their loyal fans was the news that the Sunwolves will be cut from Super Rugby after 2020.
Much was made that the team, which eventually listed 70 players in its squad, did not feature a number of Japan's top internationals despite pre-season comments that they would appear from around Round 6 following some time off to recover from their heavy work load of the last few years.
Joseph may not have been the Sunwolves head coach, but as national team coach he has overall control of what happens (on the playing side) with the Sunwolves and the Brave Blossoms. And while he can understand the frustration of the fans, he recently told he would not change anything he did.
"What we did at the start of the season was essentially give the players a breather and then get them fit and strong. That meant we had to get another group of players to start the season off," he said.
The good start from the team -- which saw them beat a pair of former champions in the Chiefs and Waratahs and lose a couple of games they should have won -- then presented a problem for Joseph and his coaching crew.
"The team was riding a high by the time the (international) players were ready to come back in so there was a reluctance to make wholesale changes" and drop players who were playing really well.
Consequently, Joseph decided to keep players such as Yutaka Nagare, Kenki Fukuoka and Kazuki Himeno in the Wolf Pack -- in effect the World Cup training squad -- where he could give them extended playing time against Super Rugby development teams rather than cameo appearances off the bench for the Sunwolves.
Some players such as Shota Horie and Yu Tamura did play a few games with the Sunwolves but as Joseph pointed out, the latter did not get much playing time because of the superb form of Hayden Parker.
"From Japan's perspective and from mine as head coach the plan went well," he said. "But where it fell over a little bit was with the Sunwolves because when they got injuries it was tough to give them players when we were halfway through our own (Wolf Pack) tour."
Making the whole situation more complicated was the decision in March by SANZAAR -- the body that runs the Southern Hemisphere competition -- to cut the team from the competition, in part because the Japan Rugby Football Union made it clear they felt the Top League was a better way to strengthen the national team.
"You are asking me as head coach of the Japan team what am I doing to help a team that is gone," Joseph said.
"I did not make that decision. The people I report to made that decision. They clearly prioritized Japan over the Sunwolves by failing to meet the demands of SANZAAR."
Japan captain Michael Leitch knows a thing or two about Super Rugby, having played for both the Chiefs and the Sunwolves, and he said the axing of the Sunwolves from rugby's top regional tournament could have serious repercussions for the Brave Blossoms moving forward.
"There's no doubt the Top League is not enough for us to get better," he said.
"The Top League is getting more competitive each year. We've got better players coming, better coaches, so the level is getting better but that's not enough to prepare us to beat top Tier 1 countries. It's enough to beat Georgia and compete with Tier 2 countries, more than enough."
"But if you realistically want to be in the Top 10 and compete at the top, then you need to be involved in a competition that is much faster and much more brutal than Top League."
"Mistakes cost you in Super Rugby, but in Top League you can get away with mistakes and being sloppy."
While the demise of the Sunwolves makes for depressing reading there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.
Changes on the JRFU board are set to put in place committee men who share the same views as Joseph and Leitch.
Among them is Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase, who is hoping to keep the team involved in Super Rugby in one way or another.
One thing Watase said he was looking at was forming a joint venture with an overseas team or teams and lending Japanese players to those sides.
The Sunwolves may yet have a reprieve and avoid extinction.