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Japanese rugby gears up for professionalism

by Rich Freeman

Summer used to be a time for rugby players to either relax or pursue other sporting interests. Between the end of season tour (which generally involved a lot of drinking with a little rugby thrown in) and the start of preseason training in late August there was plenty of opportunity to pursue other interests.

Eric Liddell, the inspiration behind the movie “Chariots of Fire,” not only won gold in the 400 meters in the 1924 Olympics but also played for Scotland on the wing. New Zealanders Brian McKechnie and Jeff Wilson both played one-day cricket for their country besides representing the All Blacks, and Welsh legend J.P.R. Williams was a good enough tennis player to win Junior Wimbledon before deciding to devote his time to his medical studies.

However, the growing professionalism of the game has meant the modern-day player must concentrate on his game year-round with only limited time off to recuperate.

The Japan season ended in February but since then players have been involved in spring and summer leagues before heading off to training camps that are increasingly being held overseas, while those good enough to be on the national team were contracted to the Japan Rugby Football Union for that period, as the national team swept aside all opposition in Asia to reach the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Even if a player did have time to pursue another sport or hobby, the chances are he could well be prevented from doing so as many contracts now include clauses that forbid players from doing anything that could lead to an injury and thereby result in them not doing their jobs. Rugby has very much become the be-all and end-all for the modern-day professional.

However, for once, those connected with the sport off the field seem to have been just as busy as the players as Japan looks to enter a new era.

On July 29 the JRFU formally announced the launch of the new professional league due to start in Sept. 13, 2003. The new league will be provisionally called the “Japan Rugby Super League” and will consist of the top 12 company teams. At the end of the season, the top eight will go into the playoffs to decide the eventual champion while at the other end of the table the bottom two teams will be automatically relegated, with the ninth and 10th teams playing-off to see which team joins them back in the regional leagues. The regional champions from Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu will automatically be promoted to the top division.

The JRFU believe the league will promote and strengthen the game and with the added interest of the Rugby World Cup (to be held in Australia in October 2003) there is a firm belief that rugby can establish itself as the third major team sport in Japan behind baseball and soccer.

At the same time, the JRFU also announced the creation of a nationwide cup tournament to be provisionally called “The Rugby Japan Cup.” This will be contested by 22 teams made up as follows: the top six teams from the Super League; the top two company teams from each of Kanto, Kansai and West Japan; the top six in the university championships and the top university team from the regional competition; the top club team in Japan and two others selected by the JRFU.

As Ian Ruxton, an avid follower of Japanese rugby and author of the Unofficial and non-commercial Japanese rugby Web site pointed out, “At a stroke a lot of the cobwebs have been largely swept away. Breathtaking, and great news for the future of Japanese rugby!”

Further proof that Japanese teams are furthering their horizons came with the news last week that Sanyo had struck a deal with Canterbury RFU in New Zealand, whereby Sanyo invests in the Union and the Union provides playing assistance. As a result Sanyo will be able to send players to play in Christchurch while Canterbury players will have the opportunity to play for Sanyo.

In this growing professional climate, it is perhaps appropriate that the season in Japan gets underway with a visit from Saracens. The north London club was for many years a poor relation of the more glamorous sides in London and despite nurturing many talented players it found players, such as Jason Leonard and Ben Clarke, leaving for bigger clubs in order to improve their chances of receiving international recognition.

However, the club has been at the forefront of changes made since the game went professional in 1995 and come to Japan with a host of international stars. The present roster includes among others Wallaby legend Tim Horan; French internationals Christian Califano, Adel Benazzi and Thomas Castaignede; Welsh caps Craig Quinnell and Tom Shanklin, England stars Richard Hill, Kieran Bracken, Canadian Morgan Williams; Fijian Nicky Little; and Japan’s Kensuke Iwabuchi.

The team takes on Sanix on Aug. 18 and Suntory on Aug. 25 and with one of rugby’s hard men, Wayne Shelford, in charge the team will no doubt be looking to impress its new coach who has said that he wants nothing less than a top-three finish in the Premiership this year.

Shanklin and Quinnell were in the Welsh squad that lost to Suntory last year and they will no doubt have warned their teammates about what to expect, particularly as the Japanese champion got better and better as the season progressed.

The game against Sanix, part of a festival to promote rugby in Kyushu, will probably be an easier run-out but is just reward for the work Sanix has done in putting Japanese rugby on the world map. The club may not have won any silverware in its short history but its bold “acquisition” of former All Blacks Graeme Bachop and Jamie Joseph after the 1995 World Cup set the bandwagon rolling as far as recruiting players from the southern hemisphere was concerned.

The game between the pioneers of the professional game in Japan and England is the ideal way to start the 2002 season, the last before Japanese rugby jumps headfirst into full-on professionalism.