With rugby seemingly done for the season, it is time to look back on a crazy few months that have seen Japanese rugby go from the highs of the 2019 Rugby World Cup to a state of confusion in which even a former Brave Blossoms captain is questioning what is going on.
Back in January, the wave of momentum generated by RWC 2019 was continuing with big crowds watching the Top League and the Sunwolves, despite the latter’s imminent departure from Super Rugby.
The Japan Rugby Football Union was still talking about the new proposed league in favorable terms — despite the initial plans being rejected by certain stakeholders within the sport — and the country was looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics.
But in the space of 27 days, fans, players, coaches and the media have all turned on the JRFU and questioned what is going on.
Of course, the initial postponement of the Top League was out of the hands of those in charge at Chichibunomiya. But what has happened since is a comedy of errors. A laughing matter if it were not for the fact that families have now been split up amid these troubling times.
Here, then, is a timeline of events:
Feb. 26: The JRFU announces postponement of Rounds 7 and 8 of the Top League due to the coronavirus and says it will be played at a later date.
March 4: Hino Red Dolphins player Joel Everson is arrested for alleged drug use.
March 6: Hino announces it will take no further part in this season’s Top League.
March 8: Sources tell me the JRFU is considering a longer postponement, even cancellation of certain games due to the virus.
March 9: The JRFU holds an emergency news conference to announce three more rounds will be called off so clubs can get a “thorough education compliance.” Officials say the coronavirus had nothing to do with the decision, it was due to what they deemed was “an emergency” regarding the use of recreational drugs among players. (Aside from Everson, a university player had been arrested for marijuana possession in January and two Toyota Verblitz players convicted of cocaine possession last year.)
March 10: Kobe Kobelco Steelers tell all their staff (foreign and Japanese) to go home and be with their families until March 21-22, a move welcomed by the players with one saying, “It wasn’t easy letting us go but showed great leadership for which I am truly appreciative.”
March 12: Munakata Sanix Blues tell their foreign staff to go home and that they do not need to return this season.
March 16: Following an article by former Japan captain Toshiaki Hirose in which he questioned the reason behind the further cancellation of games, the Japan Rugby Players Association writes to the JRFU asking why the league has been stopped because of one player’s alleged crime. “We believe players not involved in illegal activity should have the usual opportunity to play.”
March 23: With a growing number of foreign players airing their frustration and anger about whether they can fly home with borders closing and flights being canceled, the JRFU finally calls off the rest of the season. But the JRFU says it is still hoping the All-Japan Championship can be played in May.
“There are more important things than rugby right now,” Australian Matt Giteau tweeted shortly before the JRFU made its final decision.
“I love living and playing here in Japan but not to the extent of being locked out of Australia away from my family until June. I’m hoping Top League can make a decision either way before it’s too late.”
The initial response from a JRFU spokesman to that had been, “The Top League staff is always talking to all the teams. I don’t know why team staff get angry.”
Perhaps he should speak to Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, who despite being told as early as March 12 that he could go home is still in Japan because there was no way of getting back to Argentina.
Or to the South Africans, including a number of World Cup winners, stranded here because they remained with their companies until the final decision was made by the JRFU.
As one player, who was lucky enough to get home and who wishes to remain anonymous said, “I’m so confused and frustrated with the decision makers at the JRFU and the companies.
“Zero clarity about what is going on and how they are making these decisions and the welfare and health of players doesn’t seem to be taken into account in their decision making process at all.”
And there are several unanswered questions.
Who was coordinating things and why was the JRFU stance toward the virus not consistent with other sports?
Why was the league put on hold for one player’s actions — given some of the other legal issues that have dogged university rugby in the past?
What exactly were the JRFU’s plans for “thorough education compliance” when some players and coaches were not even in Japan?
And what of the demands for foreign players to come back at the end of April to play in the Japan Cup — if it even takes place?
As the anonymous player put it: “Our team says to us that our health and well being is the most important thing, yet they expect us back to play what two or maybe three games that aren’t even 100 percent confirmed yet and that no one cares about.”
And what if they “can’t get back into Japan for Japan Cup due to no flights, etc.? They stand to lose between 20 to 50 percent of their pay,” given they are employed as rugby players and not, like the vast majority of Japanese players, as regular company employees.
Frustrating and troubling times indeed.
Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News.
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