The Japan Rugby Top League unveiled its 2017-2018 season on Monday in an event revealing both ambition and concern as it builds toward the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
“In this, our 15th Top League season, we are playing toward 2019 and the Rugby World Cup,” league chairman Masayuki Takashima said. “So many players are keen to seize spots on Japan’s team in the World Cup that the competition this year should be heated.”
With an influx of new players and coaches, and more exposure of Japanese players to Super Rugby, that will likely be the case, but the league’s launch press conference also acknowledged that attendance had dropped off from the peak achieved in 2015-2016.
This season will open for business on Aug. 18 with 10 of the 16 teams in action, including doubleheaders at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground and Osaka’s Yanmar Stadium and will conclude on Dec. 24.
The league will be split into two eight-team conferences, Red and White, with each team playing its seven conference rivals once and six teams from the other conference. The top two teams from each conference will then compete for the league championship.
One of the big names coming to Japan vying for that championship is Toyota Verblitz head coach Jake White, who led South Africa’s Springboks to the 2007 World Cup title. He said one of the attractions of Japan’s domestic competition is its balance.
“I think it’s the one league that’s the most fair,” the 53-year-old South African told Kyodo News. “If you look at the other leagues I’ve been involved in, it’s usually the wealthy clubs that dominate, the clubs that are well connected that dominate.
“Here . . . a lot of sides have won it. And it’s not often that you get to a domestic competition where everyone has a real crack at winning the competition. I think that’s an attraction for new coaches, that you can make an impact and have a chance of winning it.”
While every team might have a chance, some of the rich still manage to get richer, with defending champions Suntory Sungoliath going into their opening clash with new import Matt Giteau. The Australian back, capped 103 times by the Wallabies, has already left an impression on his teammates.
“On the field, he knows how to communicate, to work with his teammates for the best results,” Suntory captain Yutaka Nagare said. “Off the field, he’s already learning some Japanese, learning about Japan and the culture. For a player with 100-plus caps to be involved to that degree is an inspiration.”
Two years removed from the buzz generated by Japan at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the 2016-2017 season’s average attendance dropped from 6,470 the season before to 5,059, and the league is trying to turn that around.
One measure is a set of commercials poking fun at the Top League’s junior status compared to pro soccer and pro baseball’s better-established leagues and reminding fans of the drop off and teams’ renewed efforts to make its game sexier. Another is a “greeting time,” where fans can meet players after the games.
But perhaps most important is an increase in games played at teams’ main stadiums. The league’s media guide lists 39 different venues this season for its 16 teams, but Panasonic Wild Knights will play six of their seven home games in their hometown, Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture.
Yamaha Jubilo head coach Katsuyuki Kiyomiya called it long overdue and blamed the league’s policy of sprinkling games around the country for its attendance drop.
“We have a great home fan base and will get 15,000 people at Yamaha Stadium,” said Kiyomiya, whose team will play only four of its seven home games at the venue in Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture.
“You plant your seeds in a place like Kumagaya. They won’t bear fruit the first year, but so what. In time, they’ll grow. You scatter seeds around the country or in (the center of) Tokyo, where no teams are based, and why is anyone surprised they don’t take root?
“Every team needs to play its games at home. They don’t because the thinking in this league is old.”
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