At the press conference to launch the start of the second year of the Top League, which kicks-off this weekend, Japan Rugby Football Union Chairman Tetsuo Machii admitted that the game’s image had suffered in recent years.
Commenting on the lack of attention given to it in the local media Machii said that people who remember the halcyon days of the sport are probably wondering, “what the hell are the people who run rugby doing?”
While the intentions of the JRFU are noble — the bid to host the World Cup in 2011 is supported by rugby fans worldwide — its cause is not helped by its own incompetence.
At last Saturday’s game at Chichibunomiya, Machii’s message in the match program welcomed “the touring Cambridge University Rugby Football Club.”
Only problem was it was Oxford, which was playing Kanto Gakuin University. OK so no real harm done — though imagine the uproar if Keio, on a tour of the U.K. had been introduced as Waseda — but it doesn’t exactly create a good image.
But that minor faux pass was nothing compared with the incomprehensible decision made by the JRFU regarding scrums in the Top League — a law, which according to World Fighting Bull head coach Des Kissane “was in place last year but I don’t think the coaches realized how it would affect them until it was raised at a (recent) referees meeting.”
Basically, a team that is unable to form a proper scrum — whether it be due to players injured or off the field as the result of a yellow or red card — will forfeit the game.
There will, apparently, be “golden oldie” uncontested scrums — though no option of a free-kick as in other competitions — but the result will be meaningless as the team unable to produce a full pack of forwards will forfeit the game.
“Extraordinary,” was Yamaha Jubilo head coach Grant Batty’s take on the law.
“The law creates more problems than it solves. It is very unusual and inappropriate,” the former All Black added. “Players will insist on playing on and the risk of injury will increase.”
The law was apparently introduced on the understanding that non-competitive scrums were unfair to teams that could field a full pack.
A spokesman for the JRFU explained a team had in the past tried to have uncontested scrums from the start — citing a lack of match-fit props — and that the law was introduced to prevent teams from de-powering the scrum.
“We do not want a situation where teams pack their backlines with good players and leave the forwards understrength,” he added.
However, it doesn’t take into account that a lot of money is now riding on games — with certain companies pulling the plug on their sports teams if they are unsuccessful on the pitch.
Even under ideal circumstances the scrum can be a dangerous place. After all we are talking about two masses each weighing around 850 kg with the brunt of the pressure taken by the three men in the front row of each side.
Didn’t the JRFU watch with horror during the World Cup semifinal when only the immediate realization of the danger at hand by All Black Kees Meeuws prevented Ben Darwin from spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair after the Wallaby prop was caught at the wrong angle in a scrum.
With the season on the line, props and hookers may feel obliged, under the new law, to carry on, despite being injured, or a flanker may do the “honorable thing” and move into the front row with potentially crippling or worse consequences.
A player at one Top League club has already told me that the more rounded members of the back row have been told they may need to fill in in the front row in an emergency.
“The law is great in theory, but very unpractical,” said Ricoh Black Rams forwards coach Glen Panaho.
A former prop with the Queensland Reds and teammate of Darwin’s with Australia, Panaho is well aware of the potential risk involved.
“Safety must come first. As a coach I am not prepared to put a player at risk. This is taking things to an extreme, and legally there must be a liability issue here,” he said.
Batty agrees that the players’ welfare cannot be compromised, and that while the law means well it is simply unfair.
“It is my understanding that the team that is awarded the game will only be given four points rather than the maximum five, so that too creates problems.”
And as it stands the law could still be exploited.
A team that is losing could take to the dark side and look to “take out the opposition” front row and so win the game by forfeit, as one referee, who naturally wishes to remain nameless, explained to me.
Batty, Panaho and Ricoh head coach Brian Smith have all said that should the law be enforced, the teams should be allowed to increase their match squads to 23 to ensure there are two specialist props and a hooker on the bench.
However, the problem still remains that a freak run of injuries in a game could see a side being penalized.
Former England and British Lions hooker Brian Moore, when told of the law by The Japan Times, said:
“There is no reason for a team to have to forfeit the game. Uncontested scrums would solve the problem.”
The “Pitbull” also hoped this article would shame the JRFU “over the potential it (the ruling) has to further reduce the number of teams (and players) in Japan.”
The JRFU seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand it wants teams to play within the spirit of the game, putting out their best available team and ensuring the paying public gets value for money.
But on the other, the law that it seeks to implement has no place in the modern game.
At a time, when rugby is trying to boost its image and attract players, the last thing the sport needs is the careers and lives of its players being endangered.
Perhaps the last word should belong to Darwin.
“It (the injury) has given me a new perspective on the value of family, friendships and simply enjoying the day-to-day experiences that life has to offer.”
Darwin, by his own admission, was lucky.
Will others be as fortunate?
TOP LEAGUE TEAMS
IBM JAPAN BIG BLUE
New boys IBM stormed through the Kanto League last year winning every game, before losing to Toyota in the regional playoffs. Coach Kazuhiro Onishi has said he has a young team capable of playing exciting rugby “but it won’t be pretty.”
Player to watch: Peter Miller. One of the standout players on the World Sevens circuit before coming to Japan, his running from open play is second to none. However, he will be pushed hard for a place in the team by another sevens specialist, Karl Tenana.
Tend to do well at home at Hanazono but do not travel well and lack the fire power needed to win any silverware. Needed a win in the playoff to stay up last year and will do well to avoid the drop.
Player to watch: Filipe Rayasi. Will be hoping to get more support than he has received from teammates in previous years. The fullback is an inspiration to his team with ball in hand but he could be looking at a long season.
KOBE KOBELCO STEELERS
Won the title last year with a good blend of youth and experience. Veterans Takeomi Ito and Yukio Motoki will be pushed hard for their places by the arrival of Ron Cribb and Mark Robinson. New leaders in head coach Terunori Masuho and captain Yuji Matsubara.
Player to watch: Osami Yatsuhashi. Often overlooked playing outside Motoki and Daisuke Ohata, Yatsuhashi is an accomplished player who is deceptively quick and difficult to bring down.
Last year the Spears were like the boy with a curl in his forehead. When they were bad they were truly awful (such as in the 54-7 loss to NEC). When they were good they were very good (40-31 winners over Suntory). The new coaching line-up will be hoping for more of the latter to justify the money spent on the team.
Player to watch: Toutai Kefu. The biggest name to come to Japanese rugby (so far!), the former Wallabies vice-captain takes over from another great Tongan-come-Aussie No. 8 in Willie Ofahengaue.
NEC GREEN ROCKETS
Slow starters, the Green Rockets always come seem to come good at the end of the season. Won the Microsoft Cup and have one of the most streetwise packs in the league. Much will depend on how quickly Jaco van der Westhuyzen settles in.
Player to watch: Takuro Miuchi. Is the heart and soul of the NEC pack and in tandem with Glen Marsh creates havoc among their opponents. The Green Rockets are simply not the same team without him.
RICOH BLACK RAMS
New coaching staff in Brian Smith and Glen Panaho, with Eroni Clarke helping Smith with the backs. The main priority will be shoring up the defense of a team that needed a playoff win last season to ensure its Top League status. Could be the season’s dark horse.
Player to watch: Glen Osborne. Whether in the No. 10 jersey or No. 15, Osborne will be a key component in Smith’s game plan.
SANYO WILD KNIGHTS
A very young team that has been allowed to mature together. Just lost out on a spot in the Microsoft Cup final last year, the partnership of Wataru Ikeda and Tony Brown could launch the team to new heights this season.
Player to watch: Tony Brown. Very brave in both attack and defense and owner of a good rugby brain. He is just the player Sanyo need to add some direction and maturity to their young up-and-coming players.
Having set the standard for so long, the Sungoliath had a reality check last year when they failed to collect any silverware. But the team has far too many good players for that to happen two years running and normal operations should be resumed this year.
Player to watch: Toru Kurihara. Performed very well for Japan in the 2003 Rugby World Cup only to suffer from severe burn-out on his return. A good all-around footballer and superb place-kicker, Kurihara is very much a confidence player, who will surely benefit from training alongside the likes of Alama Ieremia and Pita Alatini.
TOSHIBA BRAVE LUPUS
Runners-up in the Top League and the Microsoft Cup, winners of the All Japan Championship, the Brave Lupus have set themselves up as the team to beat. Well-coached and well-lead on the field, more silverware should be heading back to Fuchu this year.
Player to watch: Scott McLeod. The former All Black directs operations in the backs. Creates a heap of tries for the backs outside him, as well as providing a good kicking option with his trusted left boot.
Averaged over 100 points a game in winning the Kansai League, Toyota bounced back to the big time with a vengeance. Have the potential to do well but will need to ensure new signing Troy Flavell realizes the game is refereed differently over here.
Player to watch: Keiji Hirose. Returned from the wilderness in 2003 and showed a new found zest for the game. “Super boots” will be hoping to keep the scoreboard ticking over as Toyota look for a top-four finish.
WORLD FIGHTING BULL
Devoid of the disruptive influence of last year, Des Kissane’s team are realistically hoping for a top-four finish. Have invested wisely in new players and have a good blend of grafters in the forwards and flair in the backs. Will be one to watch.
Player to watch: Matt Cockbain. You don’t win 60 caps for Australia and play in a World Cup winning team for nothing. Will probably be used in the second row, and will be World’s go-to man in the lineouts.
Third in last year’s Top League, Jubilo had the misfortune to come up against Toshiba in both cup competitions. Grant Batty’s appointment should install some passion in the team, which includes a plethora of top back-row forwards in Koichi Kubo, Hajime Kiso and Alifereti Doviverata.
Player to watch: Hajime Kiso. Good enough to be picked for the North Harbour NPC side, the flanker is a superb athlete with an excellent pair of hands and always seems to get over the advantage line.