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Intense season awaits Top League

by Rich Freeman

The 2018-19 Top League season kicks off Friday with plenty of changes to the format both on and off the field as the Japan Rugby Football Union looks to do all it can to ensure the Brave Blossoms are at their peak when Japan hosts the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

A shorter than normal playing schedule intended to give national team and Sunwolves members a break before the launch of the 2019 Super Rugby season, as well as an increase in the number of foreigners allowed on the field, have been implemented in hopes that Japan “can finish in the top eight (at the World Cup) next year,” said league chairman Masayuki Takashima.

It also means that the season — which runs from Aug. 31 to Dec. 15 and features seven pool games and three rounds of playoffs — will not only be a sprint, but will be the most physical campaign Japanese rugby fans have ever witnessed.

“It’s just an intense competition with only seven games so you can’t really say ‘Oh it’s all right we’ll get it right next week,’ ” said Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers head coach Dave Dillon, who has acquired the services of one of the biggest names in rugby in three-time World Player of the Year Dan Carter.

“But that can be a good thing because it means it doesn’t drag on like in previous years where we’ve had breaks and so on which haven’t counted in some teams’ favor. So we’ll see how it goes.”

Former South Africa coach Jake White, who led the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2007, said the season would very different from last year.

“We have played a number of preseason friendlies and the difference is significant,” the Toyota Verblitz boss said.

“If you look at the number of foreign players, there is no such things as teams that were weak last year necessarily being weak this year.”

Toshiba Brave Lupus captain Richard Kahui agrees, saying “When I first got here (six years ago) there were four teams that could win the Top League and that was pretty much it. But every year teams have got progressively better and I look around the competition now and there are a lot of teams that can upset the big teams, especially given the format of the competition.”

The increase in the number of foreigners allowed on the field to five plus one Asian passport holder (which doesn’t include those who have acquired Japanese citizenship) will certainly make for better viewing.

But a number of people have questioned whether the new policy is the best thing for the long-term development of rugby in Japan.

The long-term plan regarding the format of the league is also unknown with some sources saying the JRFU is looking at making a smaller elite league that would allow for games to be played on a home-and-away basis.

Making things even more complicated is how the league will interact with the Sunwolves post-2020 (should they remain in Super Rugby) and the possible involvement of two Japanese sides in the planned World Series of Rugby that has evolved out of the ashes of the Perth, Australia-based Western Force.

For now, though, it is all about the next 10 games with the Top League’s 16 teams split into two groups.

Last year’s league champions Suntory Sungoliath are joined in the Red Conference by Verblitz, the 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, Ricoh Black Rams, the Eagles, Kubota Spears, Coca-Cola Red Sparks and new boys Honda Heat in the White Conference.

Following the completion of the pool games on Oct. 20, three rounds of playoffs — based on how sides finish the pool stage — will determine the league (and All-Japan Championship) champion, with those games starting 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, with the bottom-placed side playing the winner of the Top Challenge League (national second division).

Similar promotion/relegation playoffs will be held between the teams finishing 13th to 15th in the Top League and the second- to fourth-ranked teams in the Top Challenge League to determine the makeup of the top fight for 2019-20, which is set to start in January 2020, following the World Cup.

A new cup competition has also been set up and will run from Nov. 10 to Jan. 19. The 16 teams will be split into four groups of four, playing three round-robin games from Nov. 10 to 25 while the Japan national side is touring Europe.

The knockout stages of the cup — which will not include members of the national squad — will be played Jan. 13 and 19.

“Because of the short season it’s all about getting the wins,” said former Springboks coach Allister Coetzee, who has returned to Japan to coach the Canon Eagles after having previously taken charge of Kobe Steel from 2015-16.

“It doesn’t matter how ugly the wins are. There is not time to get it right in the competition, you have to hit the road running.”