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Japan’s plan to face off against the top teams in rugby is causing a stir and bringing about significant changes in the sport.


Check out the list below to see which players were in action this past weekend: Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett, Sam Cane, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Shannon Frizell, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Faf de Klerk, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe, and Franco Mostert. Just a few weeks ago, all of these players were starting in the Rugby World Cup final in Paris. However, none of them were involved in the first round of the Champions Cup.

In addition to this topic, here is an additional quiz question. Which of the rugby games listed below had a larger audience over the weekend? a) Racing 92 vs Harlequins; b) La Rochelle vs Leinster; c) Bulls vs Saracens; or d) Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay vs Tokyo Sungoliath? It can be said that the top clubs in Europe and their main international competition are not the only popular events currently.

Because the respective answers are Japan and d). No fewer than 18,500 people turned up for the pick of the opening‑round games in Japan Rugby League One (JRLO), compared to fewer than 10,000 in Racing’s futuristic Parisian stadium. Amid all the debate over Henry Arundell choosing to stay in France rather than return home to England, dozens of players worldwide have already voted with their feet (and wallets). Every single nation in the world, France excepted, faces an increasing battle to retain their best players.

Despite the recent success of Quins, Exeter, Sale, and Bristol in the Premiership against Top 14 teams, the future implications are intriguing. Will the French league become too alluring for top English players to resist, resulting in a significant rise in cross-Channel transfers? Alternatively, will the generous financial incentives of a shorter six-month season in Japan attract more European-based talent?

Savea, the reigning world player of the year, has joined the Kobe Steelers on a “sabbatical” agreement instead of participating in Super Rugby in 2024. His eagerness for his new team was demonstrated with two tries scored during his first match with them.

At present, the Wallaby threesome consisting of Marika Koroibete, Samu Kerevi, and Quade Cooper, as well as Tonga’s Charles Piutau, Wales’s Liam Williams, and England’s Nathan Hughes are all in Japan. Notably, Dave Rennie, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith, Wayne Pivac, Robbie Deans, Todd Blackadder, and Kieran Crowley currently serve as coaches in Japan. In addition, the Japan Rugby Football Union is expected to appoint Eddie Jones as their national head coach again this week. This has generated more attention and intrigue, whether positive or negative.

The chairman of JRLO, Genichi Tamatsuka, and his chief operating officer, Hajime Shoji, are expressing great confidence. They are aiming to bring in over one million fans to attend live games this season, compared to 450,000 in the first year and 750,000 last year. Despite challenges such as Covid and a decline in local interest after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Tamatsuka remains optimistic about the future of League One, both locally and globally.

“We aspire to become an exceptional league. Due to its potential for growth, Asia holds great importance for us. We have received positive feedback from players who have recently come to Japan and experienced high-quality games, particularly during the 2019 World Cup. Additionally, Japan is known for its safety and delicious food. However, the level of rugby played is also crucial and we are constantly working towards improvement.”

The goal on the business side is to create a financially viable new league model within five years and attract a wider audience. Previously, all income came from parent companies who have long been supporters of rugby in Japan. However, the target is for 50% of revenue to come from improved broadcasting, marketing, and ticketing deals in the future, with local Japanese players also reaping the benefits. Tamatsuka states that the main objective of the new league is to improve and strengthen the national team, aiming to rank among the top eight teams in the world. He believes they are on track to achieve this goal.

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Eddie Jones, head coach of Australia, looks on before the Rugby World Cup match against Portugal

Also among the new initiatives, following a memorandum of understanding with New Zealand Rugby, will be cross-border games in February involving four Japanese clubs against the Chiefs and the Blues. A new deal to broadcast League One games in South Africa, in addition to other interested territories, has just been signed this week. “At this moment we are not planning to send a team into Super Rugby,” Tamatsuka says. “Instead we are trying to expand our opportunities to compete against non‑Japanese leagues and even European leagues in the future.”

Can Owen Farrell come to Japan if he wants to give it a try? Tamatsuka says that he would be very welcome. There are many talented players from other countries who are contributing to Japan’s success. This aligns with the goals of parent companies and has increased their interest in providing support. However, there is already a strong pool of players in Japan and the challenge is promoting this to non-rugby fans and younger viewers.

The winds of change are definitely in motion. Having one league dominate and acquire all the top talent in the world is not beneficial for anyone in the long run. However, at the same time, having local leagues, struggling clubs, and limited international interest is not a viable future. If, in the future, players like Farrell or Maro Itoje want to spend a season or two in Tokyo to rejuvenate their physical and mental well-being, as well as their financial status, it would be understandable.

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Source: theguardian.com