The news that the Japan Rugby Top League is to undergo reform following this year’s World Cup should have been met with heraldic fanfare, given the nation’s recent entry into the Reiwa Era.
But having spoken to a number of coaches, players and longtime observers of the game a brief blast on a kazoo may have been more appropriate.
To put things briefly, the feeling from most parties is that a chance to rid itself of its conservative past and embrace the professional era has been missed thanks to a plan that has left many as confused as they were before last week’s briefing by the Japan Rugby Football Union.
One assistant coach with a Top League side told me he was not totally sure but thought the plan would allow the teams to be run on a professional basis from 2022 when the top 24 teams in the country will be split into three national divisions.
A senior figure at the JRFU, however, said the league, while run as a separate entity from the union, would still remain a corporate affair rather than a professional league.
A former Japan international currently coaching in the Top League, meanwhile, said he did not hold out much hope that the proposed changes would make a big difference.
And nearly all — outside some senior figures at the JRFU — thought the national team would suffer in the long run with no alternative to the doomed Sunwolves in the works.
The plan as it stands will see rugby at the highest level in Japan no longer span two calendar years, with the Top League set to run from January to May.
As has already been announced, what was supposed to be the 2019-20 TL season will run from January to May 2020 due to the upcoming World Cup.
The following year a tournament will be set up to determine which 24 sides make up the new three-tier league.
The consequence of this, I was told by the head coach of a team in the Top Challenge League (the current second division), is that for the next two seasons there will be no promotion and relegation.
The only really good news is that the new league will see teams adopt a home base, which will be incorporated into their name, and the league will be run on a home-and-away basis.
But the refusal to turn the league and teams into fully fledged professional entities means it is unlikely that rugby will follow soccer and set up much-needed academies to allow children who do not go to a school with a rugby club to play the game in their teens.
Perhaps the biggest issue as far as the companies are concerned is the shift away from the traditional August to January season.
While the new time frame will allow the Japan national team to be better prepared for the July and November test matches, the new season crosses both the financial and academic year.
What will happen to all the graduates in April when they enter the workforce? With the season entering its final stages it’s doubtful any will get any playing time in the Top League as coaches will not want to suddenly pick players fresh out of university rugby.
As a result, it’s likely the top 22-year-olds in Japan (who in the eyes of most of the top coaches have “wasted” four years playing college rugby) will go close to another year without any competitive rugby.
The other big issue, as pointed out apparently by the companies in a heated meeting with the JRFU, was the whole issue of how sides were supposed to draw up a budget given the season no longer ran in one fiscal year.
Many pointed out that their rugby team was a very small part of a massive multi-national corporation and that the parent companies were not at all happy with the JRFU stance.
The news will have also had repercussions overseas both in the short term as the “proposed two seasons in a calendar year” in 2020 has been ditched, and in the long term as the January to May season puts it in direct competition with Super Rugby.
A number of New Zealand players were said to be heading to Japan in 2020 to make the most of a big payday after the Rugby World Cup. However, that could now be put on hold with just one season to be fought out in 2020.
And even if players do still head here from the Southern Hemisphere, questions will be asked as to how much of a benefit they will have on their Japanese clubs if they are here for just one season before heading back home to try and win a place for the 2023 World Cup.
All of which begs the big question — will the new format really help the Brave Blossoms in the long run?
The JRFU has said it believes that the Top League is the best way to improve the national team — against the advice of successful coaches such as Eddie Jones and Robbie Deans.
Japan captain Michael Leitch has sided with the coaches saying the Top League does not prepare players for international duty.
Only time will tell who is right.
Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.
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