(Reuters) - Japan's Sunwolves must "start from scratch" after their humiliating 92-17 Super Rugby defeat to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday, captain Shota Horie has said.
The Tokyo-based expansion side were expected to struggle in their debut season but the 14-try rout, labelled "embarrassing" by South African pundits, was among the heaviest defeats recorded in the competition's 20-year history.
Having already played two "home" matches in Singapore, the Sunwolves were on the third and final stop of their first South Africa tour, a gruelling itinerary for even the most seasoned Super Rugby teams.
"It was a difficult result and we need to rebuild and work hard," Horie told Japanese media.
"We are a little bit fatigued but we can't use that as an excuse. It's going to come down to physical conditioning from here on. We'll have to start from scratch."
The Japanese outfit play three of their eight "home" games in Singapore, a concession made before beating out the city state's Super Rugby bid.
Winless from seven matches, the trouncing came just a week after head coach Mark Hammett declared his side had "exceeded expectations".
The defeat ranks as one of the heaviest in Super Rugby history, though the Queensland Reds' 92-3 loss to the Bulls in 2007 still stands as the competition's most lopsided result.
Former South Africa coach Nick Mallett, a television pundit for local broadcaster SuperSport, decried the Sunwolves' performance as bad for the competition.
“It was embarrassing,” he said. “Imagine what the scoreline could have been if the Sunwolves were playing one of the top New Zealand teams.
“The Sunwolves lost heart and belief and gave up long before the final whistle. This match was not a proper reflection of Super Rugby."
Tournament organisers confirmed in 2014 that Japan would enter a team in the 2016 Super Rugby season, one of three new outfits in an expanded 18-team competition.
However, the Asian nation, which will host the next World Cup in 2019, dragged its feet in putting the side together.
Many of Japan's top rugby talents, who impressed at last year's World Cup in England, turned their back on the home side to ply their trade with other Super Rugby teams.
New Zealander Hammett was confirmed as coach only in December, and had just three weeks to prepare his squad before the opening round of the season.
Japanese media were quick to link the Sunwolves' Bloemfontein capitulation with the 145-17 massacre inflicted by the All Blacks on the national team in the same city during the 1995 World Cup.
"Although this was not the national team and the scoreline was not quite as bad, it will have some wondering if last year's performances at the World Cup were nothing more than a flash in the pan," Kyodo news agency said in a sombre match report.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)