With the Rugby World Cup only a year away, the Top League is hoping to help develop players and draw attention to the domestic game over the upcoming 2018-19 season.

In order to allocate more time for the Sunwolves of Super Rugby as well as the national team, the regular season will be shortened to a seven-match regular season held Aug. 31-Oct 20. The teams will then play in placement and playoff tournaments in December.

The league will also hold a cup tournament this year with the intention of giving opportunities to younger players. The 16 participating teams will be divided into four pools, with placement playoffs to follow after the pool round.

Suntory Sungoliath will enter the Top League season as two-time defending champions and will be looking for a third straight title, which would be a first for the club.

“In the shorter season, it’s tough to open the season with an away game,” Suntory scrum-half Yutaka Nagare said on Monday at a news conference in Tokyo. “But whatever the situation may be, it won’t change so we have to keep winning. We would like to make sure that we’re prepared as best as we can be.”

Suntory will begin the season against the Toyota Verblitz at Toyota Stadium on Sept. 1.

The 25-year-old Nagare is confident ahead of the new season, noting that several rookie signings have “given energy” to the Sungoliath.

“We are able to compete at a high level, no matter who we play,” Nagare said. “At the same time, injuries are inevitable. So it’s important to have depth on your squad.”

Suntory head coach Keisuke Sawaki agreed with Nagare that his team would need to compete with extra care in each game.

“That’ll be the most important thing,” Sawaki said. “Because we have fewer games, we have to play every game in better condition. When you are in better physical condition, it leads to better concentration.”

It will be the Top League’s 16th season under the current name, but league chairman Masayuki Takashima insists that the season will be more important than ever.

“Our aim is to finish in the final eight (at the World Cup) next year,” Takashima said. “We, as the Top League, will do the best we can for that to happen.”

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