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Rugby in Japan looks to enter a new era on Saturday when Suntory takes on Kobe Steel in the first game of the new Top League.

News photoThe Top League features the top 12 corporate-backed teams in Japan in a new rofessional tournament funded by the Japan Rugby Football Union. The top eight teams in the league will play a knockout competition for the Microsoft Cup.

Replacing the traditional company championship, the new professional league will see the top 12 corporate-backed teams play in a league format with the top eight moving on to play in a knockout tournament for the Microsoft Cup, while at the other end of the table the 11th and 12th teams will automatically be relegated along with the loser of a playoff between the ninth and 10th teams, to be replaced by the top teams in the East Japan, Kansai and Kyushu leagues.

Backed by the Japan Rugby Football Union, the new league has been set up with the purpose of consolidating rugby’s position as the third most popular team sport in Japan (behind baseball and soccer) and improving the level of the national team.

However, the advances made in recent years by clubs such as Suntory, NEC, Kobe Steel, and Toshiba Fuchu have led some to question whether in fact it is the national team that needs to raise its level to that of the top club sides.

“The standard of rugby is so much better than when I first came over five years ago,” said Kubota head coach Matt O’Connor.

“The national team is not a true representation of the standard of the game in Japan,” O’Connor added. “There are some very good players over here and they (the national team) should be a lot more competitive than they are.”

O’Connor, who won one cap for the Wallabies before switching codes and playing rugby league went on to say that the top clubs in Japan are very well organized and spare no expense on their players and that the Top League would add a great deal of prestige to Japanese rugby.

“The Top League should be good, especially if there are hotly contested games every week . . . that will bring in the people,” said the man responsible for Kubota signing former Wallaby vice-captain Toutai Kefu to a three-year contract — the biggest name so far to have signed on to play in Japan.

The professionalism of the league has had a knock-on effect at the clubs.

Suntory, for example, has recruited a number of new players, including Daigo Yamashita who captained Waseda to the university championship last season, as full-time rugby professionals rather than as salarymen who happen to play in their time off.

Kubota has also set up a system whereby it offers training and study assistance to its players so that they are able to pursue a career once their time as a rugby player is up.

“Professionalism leads to more time at training and means there are more structures in place,” said O’Connor. “The new league will also put more emphasis on the physical side of the game. Our players are bigger, stronger and leaner than before. If the game is refereed properly the game will eventually slow down to the level of other countries.”

The JRFU has obviously been looking at the J. League as a role model and has adopted many of the ideas that have enabled soccer in Japan to take off and allow its national team to be competitive on the international stage.

The Japan Football Association was quick to realize that many of the local referees were not up to international standard, so it brought in a number of foreign referees to officiate in games, and eventually employed Scotsman Leslie Mottram on a full time basis as the chief referees instructor.

Earlier this year, the JRFU asked top New Zealand referee Kelvin Deaker to run a number of coaching seminars in Japan for Japanese referees.

“Kelvin ran a two-day course in Tokyo and a one-day seminar in Osaka and both went down very well,” said JRFU Secretary Koji Tokumasu.

“In addition we have arranged for a top New Zealand referee to come over in November to officiate in three games and an Australian will do two games in January,” Tokumasu added.

The JRFU would also do well to follow soccer’s lead in creating atmosphere at the grounds, in part helped by the gradual evolution of the clubs as regional identities rather than as corporate backed entities.

“As a player it is great to play in front of a noisy crowd,” said another of Kubota’s high-profile signings, Barrie-Jon Mather.

“The players want atmosphere. The JRFU should do something positive to encourage it rather than banning trumpets, etc. as they did at the Japan Sevens,” added the former Great Britain rugby league and England rugby union international, who grew up playing in front of the passionate rugby league fans of the north of England.

The JRFU will be hoping for a full house at the National Stadium on Saturday and its cause was helped by the news that the Steelers had completed the signings of Daisuke Ohata and Yuya Saito. Both players spent last season playing in France and besides giving Kobe a much needed boost to what was an aging squad, their popularity should help promote the game in West Japan — the Kansai teams having spent the last two seasons living in the shadows of the likes of the reigning national champion NEC, the last-ever corporate champion Suntory, and Toshiba.

However, this wouldn’t be Japanese rugby without at least one abnormality!

At a time when all the other top players in the world have been put in cotton wool as they prepare for the Rugby World Cup, which starts in Australia on Oct. 10, the top players in Japan are expected to play two games for their companies before the competition is put on hold, while the world watches the drama unfold down under.

If that was not bad enough, the league is then set to resume on Nov. 8 — the day two of the World Cup quarterfinals are due to be played. Talk about having confidence in your national team to perform well!

That aside, the JRFU should be commended for setting up the new league. The Super 12 in the Southern Hemisphere and the Heineken Cup in Europe have both resulted in huge improvements in the levels of rugby in the two areas and seen the sport greatly increase its exposure.

Here’s hoping the Top League will have the same effect in Japan.

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