Rugby | ADDING THE EXTRAS

Cloud of uncertainty hovers over Top League

by Rich Freeman

The New Year is traditionally a time for looking back on the past and looking ahead.

And while the future may appear bright with the Rugby World Cup kicking off in nine months, there are a lot of people involved in the sport in Japan who are spending the holiday period looking at a glass half empty.

The 2018-19 Top League season has already come to an end despite us not even reaching the new year.

At the bottom end of the ladder, Toyota Industries Shuttles and Coca-Cola Red Sparks were relegated, while NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes and Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars, coached by former All Blacks Mike Brewer and Greg Cooper, respectively, were promoted.

Meanwhile at the top, Kobe Kobelco Steelers, under the leadership of director of rugby Wayne Smith and head coach Dave Dillon, were worthy champions, going through the pool stage unbeaten and then brushing all aside in the playoffs.

In the final, the Steelers, who had eight players in their 30s and whose youngest player was 26, showed that experience will always better youthful exuberance as they hammered Suntory Sungoliath, who had nine players aged 26 or under.

With some of the “seniors” showing no signs of letting up — Dan Carter said his running game was back to what it was 10 years ago — and with some top university talent arriving in the shape of Ataata Moeakiola, Brodi McCurran, Takara Imamura and Ryo Inoue, the Steelers can head into the unknown with some sense of optimism.

But it really is the unknown as few people, if any, know exactly what will happen beyond the final two rounds of the Top League Cup (on Jan. 13 and 19), which is basically a development competition.

The abbreviated season was brought in to allow Japan’s top players enough time to rest before the start of the Super Rugby season and to ensure national coach Jamie Joseph can manage the workload of those players he hopes to pick for the Rugby World Cup.

But it means there is a 12-month gap in the domestic calendar.

Sources tell me there will be a cup competition in June and August — either side of Japan’s involvement in the Pacific Nations Cup — that is set to involve the 16 Top League teams and eight Top Challenge sides. Though given the heat at that time of year, the proposal has not been exactly well received by many coaches, particularly given that World Rugby has said player safety should be paramount.

Beyond that no one knows what is happening.

Some sources say the Top League could eventually be cut in size — with a national third division introduced — to allow a home-and-away schedule. Yet that would seem to be impossible for the 2019-20 season given the Japan Rugby Football Union has already announced there will be 16 teams next time around.

Others have said that rather going the route of trying to regionalize teams in the way local soccer did so successfully in the transition from the old corporate leagues to the J. League, Japanese rugby will become even more company based.

The positivity that next year’s World Cup should be bringing has instead been replaced by a sense of real pessimism among many involved in the game at the highest level.

A senior official at the JRFU said he hopes an announcement will be made in June as to the future structure of the league — though given how it has changed so often in the past it is doubtful how much of a long-term plan this will be.

The real problem, the official told me, lies in the hands of World Rugby, which is hoping to introduce a global league involving the top 12 countries from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

The proposed tournament would be aligned with a shift in the dates for test matches, which will, from 2020, see games played in July and November. All of this means the JRFU is still not sure as to when their domestic competition should run, despite the view from Dublin (where World Rugby is based) that everything had been agreed upon.

“This agreement has player welfare and equity at heart, driving certainty and opportunities for emerging rugby powers and laying the foundations for a more compelling and competitive international game, which is great for unions, players and fans,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said when the decision was made in March 2017.

“This process has been complex, and there was no silver bullet. Compromise has been achieved by all stakeholders in the spirit of collaboration, and I would like to thank my union, professional league and club colleagues for their full contribution and commitment to reaching an agreement that will ultimately benefit the whole game.”

Making things even more complicated is that a decision will not be made on the future of the Sunwolves and their involvement in Super Rugby until at least March, by which time another Japanese team could be taking part in the new Global Rapid Rugby competition.

The word is that team will be Panasonic Wild Knights with a second Japanese side set to join in the future — though that could be a privately run venture as opposed to a corporate set-up.

With the 2019-20 Top League season set to kick off in January 2020, that means, for at least a year, there will be Japanese sides involved in three different competitions running at the same time.

It’s no wonder coaches, players and fans are unsure who they should be pledging their allegiance to.

Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.