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Rugby’s top stars hoping to help Top League live up to its name

by Rich Freeman

Toutai Kefu, Matt Cockbain, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Tony Brown, Leon MacDonald. Besides being a who’s who of some of the biggest names to have played in the Super 12 in recent years they are also just a few of the world-class players who will be turning out this year in Japan’s Top League.

To those stars add foreign coaches such as former All Black great Grant Batty, ex-Wallabies and Ireland flyhalf Brian Smith and Des Kissane, who has worked with the Queensland Reds and Australia U-19s.

And add to the mix Japanese players such as Takuro Miuchi, Hirotoki Onozawa and Toru Kurihara who delighted so many with their performances in Rugby World Cup 2003, and the scene is set for a fascinating season.

With the Japan Rugby Football Union hoping to host the 2011 World Cup, it is hoped that the Top League will do for rugby what the J. League did for the round-ball game — raising the level of local players so that they are competitive on the international stage.

The initial results did not look good last year, as the opening two weeks of the new professional league saw the same teams winning by the same cricket scores. But an enforced six week lay-off — as a result of proceedings down under — saw the gap between the established top sides and those aspiring to reach the standards set by Kobe, Suntory, NEC and Toshiba narrow.

Consequently games were not only less easy to predict, but in many cases were decided in the final 10 minutes and Japanese rugby fans finally had high-intensity, closely-fought games to watch week-in week-out.

Or at least those that turned up did.

For despite the performance of the Brave Blossoms in Australia, the game still had a problem attracting fans. A far cry from the ’70s and ’80s when the owners of the National Stadium cried out to the JRFU to host more games at the former Olympic Stadium as the full houses were in marked contrast to the morgue-like attendances at soccer games.

How times have changed.

So it is with renewed vigor that the JRFU have launched the second season of the Top League — obviously aware that a good showing will persuade the International Rugby Board that Japan is worthy of hosting the sport’s flagship.

The clubs have responded by hiring some of the top players in the world and according to Smith, the new Ricoh Black Rams coach, the flow of players to Japan is only going to increase.

“We want the best players we can get,” he said. “Look at Jaco van der Westhuyzen. That’s the caliber of player coming here now and we want players like that.”

The new season was officially launched at a lavish press conference at a Toyko hotel on Sept. 6.

Following a couple of speeches in which the league’s catchphrase was introduced — Step the NEXT (whatever that means) — one player from each of the teams came on stage to show off the jerseys the teams will be wearing this season.

Following the fashion parade, the captains and coaches of the teams were then brought on stage. Dressed in what appeared to be matching suits — though it may be that I was still feeling the dazzling effects of the IBM Japan Big Blue jersey that wouldn’t look amiss at a Grateful Dead concert — the team leaders were asked to give their views on the forthcoming season.

Now there is only so many ways you can say “we hope to play exciting rugby,” or “we will do our best and give 100 percent,” or “we look forward to the challenge,” so after 20-odd variations on a theme, even Batty got in on the act simply saying: “Our major goal is to confirm Yamaha as a serious competitor in Japanese rugby. Gambarimasu.”

Fortunately, the coaches and captains will be judged by their team’s on-field performances rather than by their public speaking and whoever wins the silverware this year will deserve it.

“This year is going to be a lot harder,” said Toshiba Brave Lupus vice captain Nick Holten.

“Getting into the top eight is going to be hard enough. A couple of useful teams are going to drop out at the end of the season,” he added referring to the fact the bottom two teams will automatically be relegated, with the ninth and 10th teams facing playoffs to ensure their Top League status.

Kissane is hopeful that World Fighting Bull will make the top four, which would not only earn the team a spot in the Microsoft Cup (to be played for by the the top eight finishers) but also a place in the season ending All Japan Championship, which includes the top university and club teams.

However, the Australian is aware of the challenges ahead.

“The teams all play different styles, so you have to adjust your game plan every week. Toshiba are very forward dominated, while Suntory play a Brumbies-like game. And there is Toyota who use a biff and bash approach at rucks as a result of Errol Brain’s influence.”

It promises to be a great season and one in which the fledgling league will hopefully live up to its name.