The 2018-19 Japan Rugby Top League season will run from Aug. 31 to Dec. 15, the Japan Rugby Football Union announced Thursday, with a new cup competition to be held from Nov. 10 to Jan. 19.
The Suntory Sungoliath, last year’s league champions, and runners-up Panasonic Wild Knights head the Red and White Conferences, respectively, as the 16 teams are once again split into two divisions with pool games running until Oct. 20.
Suntory is joined by the Toyota Verblitz, Kobe Kobelco Steelers, NEC Green Rockets, NTT Communications Shining Arcs, Toyota Industries Shuttles, Munakata Sanix Blues and newly promoted Hino Red Dolphins.
Panasonic, meanwhile, will play Yamaha Jubilo, Toshiba Brave Lupus, Ricoh Black Rams, Canon Eagles, Kubota Spears, Coca-Cola Red Sparks and newcomer Honda Heat.
Three rounds of playoffs — based on how sides finish the pool stage — will determine the league (and All-Japan Championship) champion, with the games beginning Dec. 1 and finishing on Dec. 15.
The reduced number of games means there is no automatic relegation from the top flight for the side finishing 16th.
Instead the last-place side will face the winner of the Top Challenge League (national second division). Similar one-off promotion/relegation playoffs will be held between the teams finishing 13th to 15th in the TL and second to fourth-ranked teams in the TCL to determine the make-up of the top fight for 2019-20.
The new Top League Cup competition sees the 16 teams split into four groups of four, playing three round-robin games played from Nov. 10 to 25, while the Japan national side is touring Europe.
Pool A features Suntory, Ricoh, NTT and Honda, with Panasonic, NEC, Canon and Hino making up Pool B.
Yamaha, Kobe Steel, Kubota and Sanix will play in Pool C, with Toyota Verblitz, Toshiba, Toyota Shokki and Coca-Cola in Pool D.
The knockout stages of the cup — which will not include members of the national squad — will be played Jan. 13 and 19.
The league will then take a break for an entire year with the 2019-2020 season slated to begin in January 2020, as competitive domestic rugby is set to be put on hold in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup 2019, which runs from Sept. 20 to Nov. 2, 2019.