Rugby

Top League hoping to ride Rugby World Cup wave in 2020

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

After the enormously successful Rugby World Cup, Japan’s domestic Top League will try to take full advantage in the uptick of interest in the sport during its upcoming season, which kicks off across the country Jan. 12.

Top League chairman Osamu Ota, speaking at a news conference on Wednesday in Tokyo, said the league needs to build on the legacy Japan established during the World Cup, and he’s eager to see the league break its attendance record.

“This season, players from the Japan national team that reached the last eight at the World Cup, players from the next generation, players from other countries who played at the World Cup and other legendary players will be competing and we can expect heated battles,” Ota said. “As the Top League, we would like to do the best we can to not cool down the excitement that we gained through the World Cup.”

A total of 16 teams will square off in a round-robin format through May 9. There will not be playoffs and the team with the most points at the end of the season will be crowned as the champion.

The league has set a goal of drawing an all-time high of 600,000 fans this year. Per the league, a total of 330,000 tickets had been sold for the upcoming season through Dec. 18, already up 94 percent from the previous season in its entirety.

The record for ticket sales was set during the 2015-16 campaign, which was held after Japan posted three wins at the 2015 World Cup in England.

Many of the players who competed for the Brave Blossoms at this year’s World Cup echoed Ota’s sentiments, saying they’re thrilled to hear rugby has gained more of the spotlight.

However, they’re also aware they need to make it stick by showcasing quality, entertaining rugby in the Top League.

“Of course, we’re all excited,” scrumhalf Yutaka Nagare, who starred at the World Cup and serves as one of three captains for the Suntory Sungoliath, said of the current boom. “But the World Cup is over and it’s more important for us to think of what we are going to do from this point on. It’ll be our mission to make sure we display high-quality play with the all of the Top League teams.”

Toyota Verblitz No. 8 Kazuki Himeno said: “We’ve heard the tickets for Toyota Stadium (against the Panasonic Wild Knights on Jan. 18) have been selling very well, and I think that we were able to show how great of a sport rugby is through the World Cup. Now it’ll be important for us to focus on our domestic rugby and make sure we make it successful.”

Panasonic has the most national team players with six: prop Keita Inagaki, hooker Shota Horie and winger Kenki Fukuoka. Suntory has the next-highest number with five.

This year’s Top League will also feature global stars who represented some of the powerhouse nations at the World Cup.

Among them are notable players like All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick, of the defending Top League champion Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers and another New Zealander, No. 8-flanker Kieran Read, of Toyota, who are making their Top League debuts. Both Retallick and Read have won World Rugby player of the year honors in the past.

The first day of the season will see Kobe Steel take on Canon Eagles at Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium.

Suntory, which captured back-to-back titles from the 2016-17 season, will face Toshiba Brave Lupus at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.