Tag Archives: Top League

Wake up Japan, this is bigger than the Olympics

Well technically not, as it’s only the third biggest global sporting event. A mere 20 nations qualifying after an exhaustive elimination process, however, the tournament is three times longer at six-weeks and 12 venues from Hokkaido to Kyushu. The influx of foreign invaders will be the greatest since Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853 at Shimoda.

Pools RWC2019
The four Pools of five competing for a place in the knockout series.

Perennial favourites the All Blacks from New Zealand will be looking for an unprecedented three-peat, having won the last two incarnations in 2011 & 2015. Although, Ireland will go into the tournament as World No. 1, due to the quirky World Rugby algorithm that determines placings. Never before have the ‘Men in Green’ made a RWC Final, although their Quarter-Final match against RWC1991 winners, the Wallabies, at Landsdown Road will go down as ‘the one that got away‘.

The teams descending on Japan, somewhat delayed due to Typhoon Faxai, should be embraced by the Japanese populous along with the tsunami of international supporters. Rugby people are a different breed: beer-swilling aficionados as opposed to football (soccer in the English speaking world outside of England) hooligans. They will appreciate the culture, the ceremonies, the nature and the history that abounds there; as well as the onsen or hot springs, the most renowned are found in Beppu, Kyushu; with matches played in Oita, including two very important quarter-finals, these are a must-see (map below).Beppu Area Map

Visiting Japan 12 months out from the Rugby World Cup I got a sense that the ‘general’ Japanese population were somewhat unaware of the tournament. When questioned they would reply with, “Tokyo 2020?” Just last week at a theme park on the Gold Coast some university students visiting from Japan on their summer break in Australia looked puzzled when I said I was going to Japan for the Rugby World Cup (admittedly, they were from Ibaraki Prefecture, an hour or so north of Tokyo on the Joban Line, where no matches are being played). Also in Australia, when people ask why I am going to Japan the response often is, “Do they play rugby in Japan?

Undoubtedly, when RWC2019 begins this Friday at Ajinomoto Stadium the vast majority will get on board. Not everyone is a diehard rugby fan, but when a spectacle such as the Rugby World Cup is on your doorstep you can be assured that the populous will respond and Japanese ‘omotenashi‘ (hospitality) will come to the fore. At the 2015 tournament, 25 million in Japan tuned in to watch Japan v Samoa on their television sets, so the interest is there. The other takeout from that tournament held in the UK was the 34-32 last-minute win over the Springboks by the Japanese Brave Blossoms; recreated in cinema with the just-released “Miracle in Brighton“.

CJ at Ajinomoto Stadium
CJ last year at Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo.

Rugby Union has a long history in Japan dating from 1866 in Yokohama and, while being more popular in the universities, the company based Top League has started to attract larger crowds. Unfortunately, Japan’s Super Rugby team the Sunwolves will be axed from the competition after the 2020 season, though I’m sure their company based Top League will eventually open up to international teams from Hong Kong and Perth (convincing the JRFU will be a challenge, though).

All and all this bodes well for a spectacular tournament that I am very much looking forward to attending. 楽しみですネ‼match_schedule_2019may001.jpeg

 

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Are the Japanese Serious About Improving Rugby?

With Japan being awarded this year’s Rugby World Cup, you could be thinking that the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) would be going out of their way to promote the game. On closer inspection it looks like quite the opposite.

Firstly, the JRFU basically cancelled the Top League Competition for the 2019-20 season, replacing it with two mini tourneys in 2020. Then they told SANZAAR in March that they really didn’t think Super Rugby was the best way to develop the national side and now former Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, call’s for the JRFU to be reformed after announcing his shock resignation last week as the organisation’s honorary chairman. He is the man responsible for Japan hosting RWC2019.

Mori-san is not the only one at odds with the JRFU, as former Japan national coach, Eddie Jones, reiterated with Kyodo News in Japan, yesterday, his opinion regarding the JRFU allowing the Japanese side the Sunwolves to be disabandoned after the 2020 Super Rugby season.

If Japan wants to be a top 10 country in the world, which they do, they need their players to be prepared,” the current England coach, Jones, said.

The purpose of the Sunwolves was to give opportunities for young Japanese players to prepare for test rugby, because ultimately like any rugby country you want your national team to be strong and your grassroots to be strong, and in between you work out the right structure.

What Japan was missing was that opportunity for younger players to go from a good domestic Top League into a higher level of competition without being exposed to test level, and the Sunwolves provided that opportunity. It hasn’t worked out for them and I think it is a massive opportunity missed.

Eddie Jones speaking with Kyodo News’ Rich Freeman in Yokohama.

LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 19: Eddie Jones the head coach of England looks on during the Old Mutual Wealth series match between England and Fiji at Twickenham Stadium on November 19, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Remembering, of course, that Eddie Jones prepared the Japanese Team for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, so he knows what he’s talking about. Putting his chargers through a somewhat grueling experience on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu ahead of that tourney, they certainly reaped the glory with their win at RWC2015 in Brighton. To overcome the might of South Africa’s Springboks at rugby’s showcase tournament is the story of legends and a movie under the title of, ‘Miracle in Brighton,’ is already underway.

Japan’s Brave Blossoms celebrate their 34-32 victory over South Africa at RWC2015. Photo courtesy of Getty

World Rugby Chairman, Bill Beaumont, has used the World Cup in Japan to promote rugby throughout Asia with a target of one million new participants. In December last year, Beaumont announced that this target has been achieved at a special event celebrating 50 years of Asia Rugby in Bangkok.

While the vast majority of those numbers have been in Japan, about 460,000. Many of which have been involved in one off tournaments such as the one I attended at the YC&AC grounds last September in Yokohama run by Australian Peter Gibson called the “Hero’s Cup” with former Japan captain Hitoshi Ono.

Meeting Hitoshi Ono at YC&AC in Yokohama, September 2018.
CJ with Japanese rugby legend Hitoshi Ono at an Aussie Beef rugby tournament at YC &AC

According to veteran rugby scribe in Japan and good friend, Rich Freeman, the inflated numbers for Japan are not telling the true story. As rugby numbers are actually on the decline.

In the present way it’s structured it just doesn’t work. Schools are losing rugby clubs big time,” Freeman says.

Rugby is struggling, especially at school level, so they’re going to have to change the way it’s structured.”

The main problem is that there are no consistent pathways, unless your child attends a rugby school and that is the only sport they are allowed to play 330-340 days a year. Those that don’t attend are going to feel left out after the World Cup with nowhere to play rugby.

You’re going to have all these young kids saying, ‘Wow, I watched Beauden Barrett play and he did this, I want to play,’ but unless there are more clubs like Koji’s (Tokumasu) Shibuya Rugby Club, where are they going to go?”

Koji Tokumasu runs the Shibuya Rugby Club which is one of only a few clubs introducing Tokyo kids to the sport through tag rugby. He is a senior director for #RWC2019 organising committee and says the JRFU needs to pick up it’s act.

Every Sunday we have over 300 under 12’s playing tag rugby and even if they don’t have the opportunity to play at school they can play at our club. I’m hoping and confident that will increase, so the Japan Rugby Union and schools should be prepared to open the door when this happens.”

The urgency for exposure is apparent with only six months before the Cup kicks off at Tokyo Stadium (Ajinomoto Stadium) on September 20th with Japan hosting Russia in Pool A. Many people I talked to in Japan last year were overawed by Japan’s success at the last World Cup in England four years earlier. Not just the win over South Africa, the match between Japan and Samoa achieved a television audience record of 25 million in Japan.

CJ at Ajinomoto Stadium last year.Courtesy of @brisbanerugby on Instagram