Despite one win and one draw from 15 games, outgoing head coach Mark Hammett on Monday praised the Sunwolves organization for a successful first season in Super Rugby.
“We were green, new to Super Rugby, excited, anxious,” Hammett told a press conference at the Japan Rugby Football Union two days after wrapping up the season in South Africa. “We’ve now become experienced. We’re now respected as a Super Rugby team. For me, we had many more wins than what was in those 80 minutes.
“Every player was a better player after the season than before. That’s a win. Every player is comfortable with traveling to South Africa and playing. Thirty-eight players have played Super Rugby. We had an average of over 17,000 at Chichibu and that’s a massive win. We’ve inspired thousands of young Japanese rugby players and that’s a win.
“The challenge for the next group is to keep winning off the field, to bring wins on the field,” he said.
The Sunwolves started as inauspiciously as possible, with the JRFU failing to sign domestic stars before they signed Super Rugby contracts elsewhere.
With neither Hammett nor any players announced until Dec. 21, captain Shota Horie said an earlier head start was on his wish list.
“What I would like to see is the coaching staff named early,” said Horie, who is uncertain about whether or not he will return for 2017.
“We came together when, the start of February? Hopefully, that will happen much earlier, the coaches meeting with the players much, much earlier. If I were to be captain next year, that’s what I would want.”
Hammett, who is leaving to become an assistant coach with the Highlanders, said he believes Japan’s rugby barons are doing the best they can in a complicated situation.
“I know the JRFU are very aware of our season structure, Super Rugby, Top League and internationals,” Hammett said. “It’s about relationships in making all of Japan rugby stronger. The administration is aware of that and they are working hard behind the scenes to try and get that right but I don’t think that’s a quick fix, unfortunately.”
Although the Sunwolves attack proved to be a constant worry to opponents and the scrum became more reliable, the lack of depth at Hammett’s disposal proved to be Japan’s first franchise’s Achilles’ heel.
“Hopefully we’ll get a solution,” Hammett said. “If you look at our year, particularly the last half, the injuries to Shota, Haru (Harumichi Tatekawa) and even Tusi (Pisi) were due to compounding workloads. It’s about looking after the welfare of our players, not just this (Super Rugby) season, but the whole season.
“Ultimately, we should be 100 percent Japanese — being able to play for the national team. While the season structure is so long, with Super Rugby, Top League and internationals, I believe it’s really important to have a lot of foreign players, not so much for their playing ability (but) because it means we can rest the Japanese players.
“It’s not realistic for me to be playing Haru Tatekawa every week and then (he will) go and play Top League and internationals and have to be captain or vice captain. So if I have another good quality back, who is not Japanese, I can have him in and keep the team competitive and everyone wins.”
Tatekawa, for one, seemed disappointed the season ended as soon as it did.
“I want to play so badly next season. When the last game ended, I was taken back,” he said. “I was looking forward to another game next weekend and there isn’t one.”
Hopefully, the franchise’s administrators will be able to build on that desire, and Hammett said one thing needed to help keep that fire lit for the next generation is a home.
“There’s no doubt that long term, we need to have our own clubhouse,” he said. “We need to have an environment where we’ve got our pictures, our quotes, our people, our legends have to be there for the next group coming through.
“We all understood that this was going to be a unique year and was going to be difficult. Now is the time to have a clear vision about what it (the future) looks like. And part of that is the physical environment.”