Japanese rugby is to start a new era when the inaugural NTT Japan Rugby League One season gets underway this weekend.
League One is now the most prestigious stage for rugby players and fans in Japan, taking on the mantle from the Top League, which concluded its 18th and final season last year.
Backed up by the recent trend that has brought many of the world’s first-class players to the Rugby World Cup 2019 host nation, most of the League One teams are eager to bring in high-profile players to raise the level of quality on the field.
One of the teams who made some notable signings is Toyota Verblitz. They added Springbok forward Pieter-Steph Du Toit and All Blacks second-row Patrick Tuipulotu, with Japan back-row Kazuki Himeno returning to the side following his Super Rugby challenge at Highlanders last season.
Du Toit played in five matches at RWC 2019 in Japan to help South Africa clinch the Webb Ellis Cup for the third time. Later in the year, he was crowned World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year.
The 29-year-old native of Cape Town opted to play in Japan from the 2022 season, following his successful career with Sharks and Stormers in Super Rugby. Du Toit, who has 58 caps for Springboks, is enjoying a different type of rugby in Japan.
“I think rugby in Japan is really fast and high skilled game,” he said. “In South African rugby is slow and physical game.
“I am enjoying playing differently and the way they approach the game as well.”
His new team-mate Tuipulotu also said: “I have played Super Rugby for about eight to nine years and I thought this is time to get myself a new challenge.”
Big names arriving, expectations rising
All Blacks utility back Damian McKenzie joined the Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath with a strong determination to develop his game through his experience in Japan and win a spot in New Zealand’s RWC 2023 squad. McKenzie missed out on RWC 2019 due to injury.
Joining them on the league’s newcomers list are Australia winger Marika Koroibete of Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights, Wales second-row Cory Hill of Yokohama Cannon Eagles, and Scotland back-row Blair Cowan of Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo.
Former Australia head coach and World Rugby Coach of the Year 2015 Michael Cheika will help NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu establish the team’s foundations as Director of Rugby. Tokatsu successfully signed former Japan scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka from Eagles and Wakes second-row Jake Ball from Scarlets.
Meanwhile, former Japan forward Luke Thompson, who hung up his boots after helping Japan reach the RWC 2019 quarter-finals, stunned the Japanese rugby world with a sudden comeback.
The 40-years-old former Kintetsu player joined NTT Communications Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu ahead of this season.
His new Arcs team-mate and Australia winger Israel Folau and Springbok fly-half Elton Jantjies, who signed with NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes Osaka, are also returnees following previous stints in the Top League.
Kubota and Japan flanker Peter Labuschagne welcomes the new arrivals to the league and believes they can help produce higher quality on the pitch.
“There’s a lot of foreigners but also a lot of local talent that’s going to come through,” Labuschagne said.
“Every team is going to be a really good level and the competition is going to be really high. That’s why I am looking forward to it. That gives us an opportunity to grow and look how we can be better as well. So, it’s really exciting.”
Unfortunately, some teams have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wild Knights were unable to field a team for the opening game, scheduled for January 7, after nine of their players tested positive for COVID-19.
The opener with Spears was forced to be called off, which resulted in Spears gaining five points to Saitama’s none.
Other teams have experienced a delay in the arrivals of some foreign players due to the travel restrictions imposed by the Japanese government. Teams have to show collective strength to overcome difficulties.
Increased number of games, plans for cross-border games
In League One, fans will have more opportunities to watch matches as the number of games for each team will be increased compared to the Top League.
In Division One (D1), a total of 12 teams will be divided into two conferences in A and B and play in a double round-robin system within each conference, in addition to a single round-robin with teams in the other conference.
The top four teams at the end of the regular season will move on to the play-off tournament to decide the champions, while the lower four teams' placing will be decided at the end of the regular stage.
The relegation-promotion play-offs between the divisions will also be held at the end of the season.
Thus, D1 teams will have at least 16 matches in the regular season, which is more than last season’s champions Wild Knights had, having played 11 matches.
In D2 and D3, each team will have 12 matches to play. Six teams each in both divisions play in a double round-robin followed by the classification matches.
Plans are in place for cross-border matches for the top finishers in the coming seasons.
What an achievement! 💯— Japan Rugby (@JRFURugby) January 5, 2022
Michael Leitch is named as the first ever Asia Rugby Players Ambassador and chairman of the Asia Rugby Athletes Committee.
We can't think of a better person for the position 😉
Read the full story from Asia Rugby here ➡️https://t.co/HkYOxJRICh pic.twitter.com/m22lXjs4jq
Japan hooker Atsushi Sakate of Wild Knights said: “I’m happy about playing many games. With the increased number of games, fans can enjoy the game more.”
The league is expected to take on an important role in helping Japan players improve their game ahead of RWC 2023.
In the run-up to RWC 2019, the Japan players played for Sunwolves and developed their game through the Super Rugby experience.
That, however, is no longer available after the Japanese team was cut from Super Rugby at the end of 2020. It is now hoped League One will help fill the gap.
Japan and Kobelco Kobe Steelers full-back Ryohei Yamanaka said: “It’s important to play at higher standard. That would lead us to the performance of the Japan national team.”
Connecting to local communities
Another of the changes from the Top League to the League One is seen in team names. Each team is required to clarify their home stadium and activity area and needs to feature their local area in their name.
The league encourages their teams to have stronger connections with the local communities to build a solid foundation in the area.
Many teams still have the name in combination with their company and local area, but Shizuoka BlueRevs is different. They changed their name from Yamaha Motor Jubilo, not having the company name in an attempt to create familiarity for local people.
Meanwhile, Saitama Wild Knights built their clubhouse and training ground in Kumagaya Sports Culture Park when they moved to the RWC 2019 venue city.
That provides an opportunity for local people to take a look at a training session while taking a walk in the park.
Sakate of Wild Knights said: “Since our training ground is located in the park, we are hoping to have more people come by and watch our session. That would give us an extra spur.
“It would be nice if we can give someone a chance to get interested in rugby.”
League One will also introduce a home-and-away playing format, which they call “host-and-visitor”, and every team is now responsible for their home game operation to produce revenue. That is new to the teams in the league.
Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath general manager Kiyonori Tanaka said: “We didn’t have thoughts on making profit, and that is what we have to change.”
By introducing those changes and attempts, the league is aiming to attract more fans to the game and make it competitive at the highest level in future.
Genichi Tamatsuka, chairman of League One, said: “We’d like to have as many fans as possible at the stadiums. Many fans found rugby interesting at Rugby World Cup in 2019 and we are hoping to grow the potential.”
Japan and Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo back-row Michael Leitch believes that fans will be key to the new league’s success.
“I am hoping this is the league for the fans. It’s important to see how much our fans can enjoy rugby and get the distance between the fans and the players closer,” the ex-Japan captain noted.
Former Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw, who is going to have his second season with Shining Arcs, revealed a similar thought.
“It’s an entertainment business, and if you can have high skill sets as a rugby player, people can come along and enjoy the game,” he said.
“With the way rugby plays in Japan, that’s really a good thing and it’s a positive way the game is played. Teams play fast and score a lot of points, so the supporters can come and watch a lot of tries being scored.
“Certainly, that’s really an enjoyment for the players.”
Now it’s time to start.