It’s often said you shouldn’t leave things to the last minute, but the Japan Rugby Football Union will be delighted that its new competition, the Top League, has gone right down to the wire.

With one round of matches remaining, the only thing that is certain is which teams will finish in the top eight and take part in the inaugural playing of Microsoft Cup, before going on to the season-ending Japan Cup.

At the bottom end of the table, four teams — the Secom Rugguts, the Ricoh Black Rams, the Kintestsu Liners and the Fukuoka Sanix Bombs — will all be battling for their Top League survival when matches get under way on Saturday and Sunday.

Nowhere will the pressure be greater than at Oita Big Eye on Sunday when Sanix (12th with 12 points) takes on Kintetsu (11th with 13 points), with the loser almost certainly assured of one of the two automatic relegation spots — the bottom two clubs being replaced by Toyota and Nihon IBM.

Virtually assured because the points system — four for a win, two for a draw, one for scoring four tries and one for losing by less than seven points, and the fact that earlier results between teams count if they end up level on points — means it is possible, given an extraordinary set of circumstances, that both could survive. A high-scoring win to Sanix with Kintetsu earning two bonus points, could still see Secom and Ricoh automatically relegated were they to lose heavily in their respective games against World Fighting Bull and the Sanyo Wild Knights.

Even then the teams that do avoid the dreaded 11th spot and come in ninth and 10th will still face difficult playoff games against Kyushu Denryoku and the winner of Saturday’s game between Kamaishi Sea Waves and Toyota Industries, respectively, to ensure their survival in the top flight.

As Suntory Sungoliath lock Jamie Washington said earlier this season, “The new competition has been great. You never know what is going to happen from one week to the next.”

Washington and his teammates will be involved in one of the two games that will decide which team of three ends up as champion.

Suntory — currently in first place with 42 points — takes on Toshiba Brave Lupus (third on 39 points) at Tokyo’s Chichibunomiya, while the Kobe Kobelco Steelers (also on 42 points but with the disadvantage of having lost to Suntory in the season opener) take on the NEC Green Rockets at Kobe Wing on the same day.

However, unlike in England a few years ago when the trophy spent much of the final day of the season in a helicopter ferrying between the two grounds of the teams involved in a race for the league title, the Top League champions will be crowned at an award ceremony in Tokyo on Jan. 29.

“We will be holding an award ceremony next week to crown the Top League champion, the top try scorer and other awards such as the Fair Play Award and the Best XV,” said Koji Tokumasu, secretary of the JRFU.

Tokumasu went on to say that it was entirely possible that the team that did win the new league would not necessarily end up winning the Microsoft Cup (or indeed the Japan Cup) — a view shared by Sanyo and Kanto Gakuin assistant coach Mike Cron.

“Once you get to the knock-out stage, anything can happen. Just look at the results this year,” said the New Zealander after he had helped Kanto to the university title.

Cron will no doubt have divided loyalties should Sanyo end up playing Kanto in the 41st Japan Cup.

Previously a chance for the university champion to take on the company champion, the cup has changed its format over the last few years as the gap between the “men” and “boys” has grown bigger and bigger.

This year’s competition (which gets under way on Feb. 7) has been completely revamped with 22 teams taking part.

In addition to the top eight teams from the Top League (who will join the competition once the Microsoft Cup has been concluded), the Japan Cup will also feature the top six teams from the three regional leagues (Toyota, Nihon IBM, Kyuden, Kamaishi, Toyota Industries and Coca Cola West Japan); the top six universities (Kanto Gakuin, Waseda, Doshisha, Hosei, Tokai and Teikyo); the club champion (Tamariba) and the regional university champion (Fukuoka).

It promises to be a busy, exciting and nail-biting conclusion to the season.

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