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A Guide to Top League Rugby in Japan

A look at Japan's unique professional club rugby and how to enjoy the action.

By 9 min read

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.

The Top League clubs are all run by corporations, which is a model that is unheard of elsewhere in the rugby world.

Top League games regularly attract crowds of 20,000-plus, so at around ¥1,500 to ¥3,000 a ticket, you can certainly get a bit of bang for your buck. A caveat, however, is that the club fan bases are predominantly comprised of company officials and employees. To many true fans of the sport, this kind of potentially fleeting allegiance is a little distasteful. Most Japanese rugby fans I’ve spoken with say supporting a club that doesn’t pay your bills or have the potential to fire you — I know that’s rare in Japan — just seems a lot purer. For the record, I’m inclined to agree, but it doesn’t necessarily make me feel any distaste towards the sport here.

How the Top League works

Each corporation in the Top League siphons large portions of its general revenue into its rugby club; this pays for players’ salaries and other club transactions and business. A huge percentage of this covers the enormous salaries of marquee player signings from abroad (often upwards of ¥76,000,000, or US$700,000, per season). Over the last 10 years or so, this has been standard practice across the league, with no signs of slowing down.

To keep teams from loading up on international players, the league has instituted some limits. Only six bona fide foreign players are allowed in a match-day squad — and only five can be on the field at any one time. Of those six players, at least half have to be potentially eligible to play for Japan in the future: either born here, have a Japanese grandparent or lived here for five years without having played for another international side in the past.

Recently, Aichi Prefecture‘s Toyota Verblitz and Chiba’s Kubota Spears announced their frivolous acquisitions of New Zealand All Blacks’ captain Keiran Read and Ryan Crotty, respectively. Will Genia and Quade Cooper (formerly half-back partners at the Queensland Reds) will be lining up alongside each other for the Kintetsu Liners in Tokyo from next season. Other big-name players that will be arriving in Japan next season include former Wallaby captain David Pocock, and the young South African, Jesse Kriel.

Obviously, this is huge for Japanese rugby fans, who now have ample opportunity to watch some of the best players in the game on a regular basis without having to travel to foreign lands. Rising Japanese university rugby stars and the players who are employed by the relevant companies reap the rewards of this, too. Rugby is steeped in sporting tradition, but the culture of Japanese rugby still lags far behind that of the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses: New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. For young Japanese players to learn from legends of the game who have amassed test caps (the number of international games played for your national team) for any of these nations is an invaluable tutelage.

From the corporate side of things, the benefits are less clear. On the face of it, it appears as though big player signings should increase the standard of rugby at the club level, which could potentially lead to better television and sponsorship deals and, most importantly, improved corporate street-cred.

Owning a club that wins Japan’s top professional rugby competition is a great feather to add to the ostentatious plumage of an already globally-renowned company.

Future of the Top League

Photo:
Dan Carter of Kobe Kobelco Steelers in a match against Suntory Sangorius.

Japan’s Top League will see some restructuring in the near future.

The 2019/20 season has been pushed back from its usual starting slot in late August to make way for the 2019 Rugby World Cup that will take place in Japan from September 20 to November 2. The upshot is that two Top League seasons will now be played in 2020 at opposite ends of the calendar year. This will coincide with the Sunwolves’ final season, meaning players who represent both the Sunwolves and a Top League side, face the potential of a very busy year. For Japanese rugby fans, however, this means more or less a full year of world-class rugby being played right on their doorsteps.

For Japanese rugby fans, however, this means more a less a full year of world-class rugby being played right on their doorsteps.

Recent news has suggested that the Top League will undergo more permanent restructuring in 2022. This would involve increasing the number of clubs in the league to 24 teams and splitting it into three separate conferences of equal size. At the time of this writing, the league is still set to continue in the corporate mold — as opposed to moving in the direction of a more professional structure, like the rest of the developed rugby world in which teams are not owned by companies.

How and where to watch Top League rugby

Good news for fans: with increased team numbers from 2022 onwards, even more people will have the chance to watch live Top League rugby games.

Some may be irked by the JRFU’s decision to maintain the corporate setup. However, the hope is that — with Top League teams in many of the major cities and surrounding areas — even more prospective rugby fans across the nation will be exposed to the sport. This will also come at a time when interest should be at an all-time high following this year’s Rugby World Cup.

The Top League is typically shown on the J Sports TV channels (the exact channel will vary based on your cable provider), with the finals broadcast on terrestrial television. Games are usually played on weekends. Even though the matches attract big crowds, it’s usually quite easy to walk up to a stadium on the day and purchase your ticket at the gate. Kobe, Tokyo, Chiba, Osaka, Abiko, Gunma, Fukuoka, Shizuoka and more all feature major Top League clubs. Tickets can be purchased online through JRFU’s official website.

Top League clubs

Here is a full list of JRFU Top League clubs and their locations for the upcoming 2019/2020 season (and yes — these are legitimately the real team names):

Looking to the future

The Top League is not without issues. A more professional approach to the structure of the league, better media coverage and more of an inference of improving Japan’s grassroots setup would go a long way to making it more inclusive and inviting to the general public. It’s not an overnight fix, but if Japanese rugby wants to reach for the stars, then they should start addressing the inexorable forces that are continuing to pin them down.

However, if you’re a rugby fan — or a fan of live sport at all — going to a Top League match is undoubtedly a good day out. The rugby is generally free-flowing, played with the kind of reckless abandon that generates fan excitement and there’s a chance that some of the best players to play the game could be gracing the field. Plus it’s cheap and you can bring your own booze. Sign me up.

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