After the dust has settled and all tears – both of joy and sorrow – of the recent Rugby World Cup have gone dry, Rugby goes back to the global, weekly grind of training and competition, as it has done for centuries.
The same goes on in host country Japan and given their incredible, seemingly meteoric rise at RWC 2019, we take a look at the Top League, Japan’s highest level of Rugby competition in the country.
Although Japan has participated in every single Rugby World Cup since 1987, it is a little known fact that Rugby has been quite a popular sport in the country for quite a long time. Since foreigners first introduced the game in the 19th century, universities and corporations have taken the game to heart and it has always been an established, popular sport even though it may not be as popular as baseball, football or more traditional sports such as sumo.
Since Rugby’s professional era began in 1995 however, Japan has been quick to duplicate other, more established unions in both the Southern and Northern hemispheres, and have made significant strides both in competition and management of the game in order to catch up.
Since 2003, the Japanese Rugby Football Union has absorbed the long-running Japan Company Rugby Football Championship (a national Rugby competition that had been running since 1948) to create a new competition called The Top League. A brainchild of Hiroaki Shuzukawa, the Top League had always been intended to improve Japanese professional Rugby which would eventually allow Japan to compete better at the Rugby World Cups. Initially starting with 12 teams it has grown to 14 and now 16 domestic teams including Ricoh Black Rams, Mitsubishi Dynaboars and Hino Red Dolphins.
Although it is an industrial league with teams owned by major Japanese companies and where many players still play at amateur level as employees, the Top League is well known as a competition that is willing to pay high salaries for both overseas and local marquee players. Over the years, it has recruited Rugby superstars such as George Gregan, Jaque Fourie, Sonny Bill Williams and Matt Giteau and current Champions Kobelco Steelers have the services of both Dan Carter and Brodie Retallick for their 2019-2020 season. Kieran Read will also join the competition, recently signing a contract to play Number 8 for Toyota Verblitz.
If Japan’s recent wins against Ireland and Scotland at the World Cup is anything to go by, there can be little doubt that the Top League has contributed significantly to the impressive improvement of the Brave Blossoms. Granted that the Sunwolves’ involvement in Super Rugby has accelerated the overall Japanese player development at its highest level, the Top League has been a valuable competition where local players get the chance to play regularly alongside some of the best in the world and the results speak for themselves.
In fact, many of Japan’s recent World Cup squad were actually either Sunwolves or Wolfpack (Sunwolves’ B) players who had put in years in the Top League. Michael Leitch has played for Toshiba Brave Lupus since 2011, Shota Horie for Panasonic Wild Knights alongside Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima and Yu Tamura play for Suntory Sungoliath and Canon Eagles respectively.
The Top League has endured and proven yet again that a dedicated club competition along with grassroots development that feed into it will lead to better Rugby. The model works in New Zealand as it does in Georgia and it is always great to see it being given a go at other countries as far away as Malaysia and Chile, Tanzania and Fiji.
With its popularity reaching around the world Rugby is definitely becoming a global-driven game with professional competitions in SANZAR, Europe, the USA and now Japan, all offering their own thrilling take on this exciting game we all love.