The Japan Rugby Football Union has revealed the revamped format and schedule for the 2021 Top League season.
The start of the campaign is now set for Feb. 20 and will run until April 11. A matchup between Toyota Verblitz and Toshiba Brave Lupus in Nagoya is the headliner among the first round of games.
The season was originally slated to begin Jan. 16, but was postponed after multiple teams experienced COVID-19 outbreaks. Earlier this week, the league announced the total number of positive cases was 68.
Speaking in an online news conference on Saturday, JRFU Chairman Kensuke Iwabuchi said 29 of the 68 players have now tested negative for the virus and have resumed practicing with their teams. He added that the majority of the remaining players are expected to return to rugby activities in the next week or so.
The season’s new format will divide 16 teams into two conferences — the Red and the White — where they’ll face every other team once. The league will then host a 20-team postseason tournament, which will include the top four teams from the lower-tier Top Challenge League, from April 17 to May 23.
The winner of that tournament will be the final Top League champion, with a new league scheduled to kick off in January 2022.
Among the powerhouse clubs, the Kobe Kobelco Steelers, Yamaha Jubilo, and Panasonic Wild Knights have been grouped together in the White Conference, while the Suntory Sungoliath, Toshiba and Toyota will play in the Red Conference.
Moving the season back will reduce the total number of games, including playoff contests, from 103 to 75.
“We need to monitor the infection cases within the league and reconsider our countermeasures,” Iwabuchi said. “As the league, we, along with our teams, have to make sure we don’t have players get infected, but there’s no guarantee we won’t have any.
“We have four weeks until (Feb. 20) and we set that date because, at least right now, we think we’ll be able to play. With that being said, there’s a possibility we’ll be forced to rearrange the schedule before then depending on the situation.
While the league had announced it would require players to take PCR tests every two weeks during the season, Top League Chairman Osamu Ota said it’s likely testing will be done more frequently.
The circuit also plans to allow fans to attend games and will stick to guidelines given by the government and limit crowds to 5,000 fans or 50% of stadium capacity.
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