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Top League looking to capitalize on Rugby World Cup fever

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Top League stars, including some of Japan’s Rugby World Cup heroes, assembled for a news conference in Tokyo on Monday as the 2015-16 season prepares to kick off around the nation on Nov. 13.

After the Japan national team’s historic success at the World Cup in England, the attention that rugby is currently enjoying is at an all-time high. The players, coaches and other officials acknowledged that they need to tap into that interest with Japan’s premier circuit.

The number of reporters and TV cameras on Monday were a sign of the sport’s current boom. According to a league official, nearly 200 reporters came to the event, double the number that attended the same event last year.

“We made an impact on the world stage,” said Yamaha Jubilo star fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who has now become a household name nationwide. “We’d like to do the same in Top League as well.”

Brave Blossoms scrum half Fumiaki Tanaka, of the league’s reigning champion Panasonic Wild Knights, said: “In order to change the history of Japanese rugby even more from this point on, we’d like to bring more excitement (in Top League).”

Even players who weren’t involved in the World Cup were eager to get on the bandwagon.

“Hopefully, the media will keep reporting throughout the season,” Toshiba Brave Lupas head coach Teppei Tomioka said. “And we’ll have to do our best to make it happen.”

Suntory Sungoliath head coach Andy Friend said: “I think the energy that has been created in this country is a good thing for Japanese rugby, and it’s a responsibility for all of us, the 16 teams, to make sure we keep it going.”

The 16 teams are divided into two groups and play in a round-robin format in the first phase of the season. The top four teams in each group advance to January’s knockout playoffs, called the Lixil Cup, while the other teams compete in another tournament to determine the placements. The winning team in the Lixil Cup is crowned Top League champion.

The Top League has set its overall attendance goal at 400,000 this year. It will feature some notable international players who starred in the World Cup, such as New Zealand flanker Liam Messam (Toshiba), South Africa back Willie le Roux (Canon Eagles), Australia standoff Bernard Foley (Ricoh Black Rams) and Australia back Israel Folau (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes).

“I’m thrilled,” Goromaru said, when asked how he feels about taking on his national team teammates in the Top League.

“We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Also, I’m personally excited to play against those superstars of other countries.”

Panasonic captain and Japan flanker Shota Horie urged newer fans to go to the stadiums to see the action.

“It’s not bad to watch the game on TV,” Horie said. “But I want people to come to our games and feel what we do firsthand at the stadiums.”