Rugby only broke its way into the pantheon of professional sports in 1995. The International Rugby Board (IRB) declared its “pro” status (meaning they would now pay players to play) following the success of that year’s Rugby World Cup in South Africa, and the subsequent financial injection from media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. The time prior to that is often referred to as the “amateur era” in rugby. From that time until now — just 24 short years — players went from earning nothing to the million-dollar contracts we see today.
Though professional rugby is still relatively in its infancy, certain indicators within the sport belie that truth. In the mold of big money spectacles like soccer, basketball and American football, rugby is now starting to show the effects of huge economic injections into the sport. This is particularly evident in Japan and — for better or worse — the country’s highest-ranked professional club rugby competition, the Top League, is deeply entangled within all of this.
The Top League clubs are all run by corporations, which is a model that is unheard of elsewhere in the rugby world. With the Tokyo Sunwolves’ having been axed from the Super Rugby Championship in March 2019, this has led to some concerns that the sport may suffer in the absence of a non-corporate, fan-centric team. However, following the recent news of restructuring club rugby within Japan — and the Sunwolves’ omission from those plans — the Top League is now set to be Japan’s professional rugby standard-bearer from 2020 onwards.
So what does the future hold for professional rugby in Japan? How does the Top League fit into this? And more importantly: Who is Japan’s Top League really for?
Top League 101
The Top League was initially created in 2003 by the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU), as a way to increase the standard of professional rugby in Japan along with national interest in the sport. Thanks to financial influences within the league, Japanese rugby began to take huge strides. The state-of-the-art training facilities, foreign talent and improved coaching and training regimes across the board were a far cry from Japanese rugby in the pre-21st-century era.
Though the Top League has been iterated upon over the last 16 years, it now contains a total of 16 individual clubs spread across the country.
Each club is branded with an eponym that denotes their respective corporate owners. Names like the reigning champions, Kobe Kobelco Steelers, the Tokyo-based Suntory Sungoliath, Gunma‘s very own Panasonic Wild Knights or my personal favorite (just for the inspired name alone), the recently relegated Coca-Cola Red Sparks of Fukuoka.
The standard of rugby in Japan’s Top League is pretty good for a young league, but it still lacks in some aspects. It doesn’t have the same robust grassroots and academy infrastructure as some of the “developed” rugby nations and — in spite of the ever-increasing money available — there still isn’t enough of a fan draw (and a comparatively short and less competitive season) to attract the best players from elsewhere, especially those who are still in the prime of their careers. This makes the selection of players somewhat of a mixed bag. Legends of the game like Dan Carter, Matt Giteau and, in the past, George Gregan and Fourie Du Preez, have laced up their boots beside promising, young university talent and company employees. University competitions are still seen as the peak of rugby to many people in Japan; hence the clubs’ efforts to recruit such talent — snagging a top uni player can be a big deal.
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