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Top League has hope heading into final

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Katsuyuki Kiyomiya is no Ichiro Suzuki, but he may be just what the Top League needs.

News photoSuntory coach Katsuyuki Kiyomiya (right) and Queensland Reds coach Eddie Jones talk during a team
practice. Kiyomiya is becoming popular within Japanese rugby circles.
AKI NAGAO PHOTO

Kiyomiya has none of Ichiro’s looks and star power, but the coach has the Suntory Sungoliath in Sunday’s Microsoft Cup final. More importantly, he has respect both in the Japanese rugby circle and the business cliques associated with the Top League.

A former coach at Waseda, Kiyomiya will lead the formerly mediocre Sungoliath against the defending champion Toshiba Brave Lupus at Prince Chichibu Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday.

Kiyomiya turned around Waseda, and in his first season with Suntory, he has done the same thing.

“There is nothing to it,” he said. “Rugby is a simple game. No matter what level you play it at, your goal is very simple — you want to cross the line.”

Already, the charismatic Kiyomiya is being tipped as a possible future coach of the Japan national team.

But before then, Kiyomiya may be able to help in a different way — namely by boosting low spectator numbers for the Top League.

The root of the problem is the corporate nature of the Top League’s teams, which are run by companies who see players as members of the workforce.

Company cheering squads keep the crowd noisy, but still very small, and given the company connections, some would-be supporters may feel alienated without any ties to the respective firms.

Games at Prince Chichibu, the site for the majority of matchups, usually do not number more than a few thousand in the 27,188-capacity stadium by kickoff. The lone exception is the Yamaha Jubilo, who promoted themselves to local fans in Shizuoka Prefecture, nearly filling Yamaha Stadium’s 13,315 seats.

In a country where rugby is seen as a gentlemen’s sport and is associated with top businessmen and politicians, some may not be as worried about swollen masses packing the stands.

“When considering Japanese club rugby, it is important to understand that companies see these clubs as status symbols, and they are not to generate income,” said Yuchiro Fujii, head coach of Fukuoka’s Sanix Blues. “Global companies like Toyota or Toshiba don’t need to gain income from crowds coming to watch their rugby.”

Nonetheless, the numbers are a bit odd given that Japan has the fourth highest number of registered players in the world.

One place the crowds would be more welcome, however, is at Brave Blossoms tests. The Blossoms usually draw even smaller crowds than the Top League, and despite an improved campaign in the Asian qualifiers for this year’s World Cup, the Blossoms still are not a top feature. The Asian qualifiers, for example, were not broadcast on TV.

Now under the leadership of former All Black John Kirwan, the Blossoms are building steam for the World Cup in France. Japan will open against Australia on Sept. 8.