Quo Vadis, Japanese rugby?

By Craig Ray 30 September 2019

Fumiaki Tanaka (C) of Japan in action against Ireland during the Rugby World Cup match between Japan and Ireland at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa in Fukuroi, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, 28 September 2019. Japan won the match. EPA-EFE/JIJI PRESS EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO ARCHIVE/JAPAN OUT/NO COMMERCIAL SALES / NOT USED IN ASSOCATION WITH ANY COMMERCIAL ENTITY -- JAPAN OUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/ NO ARCHIVES NO ARCHIVES NO ARCHIVES

Japan’s unexpected 19-12 win over Ireland at Rugby World Cup 2019 on Saturday 28 September was not only a boost for the tournament’s profile, but also a reminder for South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby (Sanzaar) that perhaps they have missed a trick.

By beating Ireland, Japan are in a strong position to qualify for the RWC quarterfinals for the first time. They are currently top of Pool A and if they beat Samoa and Scotland in their remaining matches, will finish as group winners. If that’s the case, they are likely to play the Springboks in the quarterfinals.

Japanese rugby is in the spotlight now more than ever. More so than when the Brave Blossoms shocked the rugby world by beating the Springboks at RWC 2015 in Brighton.

But the euphoria around rugby sweeping Japan could be short-lived. The future of the sport is still fragile in that country, despite the public relations spin about its growth. The heart of the problem lies in the question: what next for Japanese rugby?

In March 2019 Sanzaar revealed that 2020 would be the last season for Japanese composite team the Sunwolves in Super Rugby.

The Sunwolves were included in the southern hemisphere’s most important provincial competition in 2016. And when Japan beat the Springboks in Brighton, for the biggest upset in rugby history, there were backslaps all round by Sanzaar hierarchy (the South African contingent excluded).

That win showed that, at a national level at least, Japanese rugby was ready to compete with the elite of the sport.

Japan won three out of four pool matches at RWC 2015, but failed to reach the last eight. Still, there was huge optimism because of their success in England four years ago and understandable expectation about what the Sunwolves could bring to the Sanzaar table.

After four years, the short answer is: they didn’t bring much.

The Sunwolves concept immediately ran into problems with the clubs in the established Japanese domestic game. Wrangling over player eligibility and a head coach were the main sticking points. Two of their three main RWC 2015 stars – captain Michael Leitch and scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka – carried on playing for the Chiefs and Highlanders respectively in New Zealand, instead of coming home.

Fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who scored 24 points during the 34-32 win over the Springboks in Brighton, signed for the Reds in Australia. And coach Mark Hammett was only appointed a month before Super Rugby 2016 began.

The Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU), which had underwritten the cost of running the Sunwolves for five years, decided against carrying on post-2020. On the field, the Sunwolves have been a disaster. They have won just eight of 62 matches, with 53 defeats and a draw for a 13% winning ratio.

To compound the problems, two-thirds of their players aren’t Japanese. They have become a virtual Barbarians side of foreign journeymen that does little to develop depth in Japanese rugby.

Playing half their home games in Singapore has further diluted the Sunwolves’ support in Japan, where the concept has never gained traction. Ironically, following the success of the current RWC 2019 from a support base, the Sunwolves might actually have a massive following in 2020. And then they will be cut loose.

The future of the Sunwolves will now be determined by the JRFU, which has determined that Super Rugby no longer remains the best pathway for the development of players for the national team,” Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos said.

The Sunwolves could have continued if there had been support from Sanzaar. But the body grew lukewarm about providing a platform for Japanese rugby when there seemed to be a little economic upside.

The anticipated commercial support never materialised while the JRFU also scored an own goal when it turned its back on Sanzaar in the bidding and voting process around RWC 2023. It was the South African Rugby Union in particular which wanted the Sunwolves out of Super Rugby, after the JRFU snubbed them when it came to the vote for the right to host Rugby World Cup 2023.

Despite South Africa being named as the “preferred bid” over France and Ireland by an independent World Rugby assessment panel, the JRFU backed France. There had been a tacit agreement that votes would be cast for the preferred bid, regardless of which one it was. Japan baulked and lost any goodwill that remained in Sanzaar.

But there are initial plans for a new 12-team league that could include sides from the Pacific islands to fill the void that Super Rugby will leave. Strategically, commercially and geographically it might be the best path for Japanese rugby, especially if it can ride the goodwill and popularity generated by RWC 2019.

The idea is for the competition to run from September to January, starting in 2021, using the 12 RWC 2019 host stadiums and aligning the calendar with the northern hemisphere. It would include the Sunwolves as well as most of Japan’s current clubs, possibly in new guises, much like it happened in the early years of Super Rugby.

Japan and the Asia Pacific region remain strategically important to Sanzaar,” Marinos said.

We will continue to work with the JRFU, Japan Super Rugby Association (JSRA) and other stakeholders, as we have done throughout this review process, to establish a truly professional league structure in Japan, in which current and potentially new teams could participate.

We have presented options to them around the establishment of a Super Rugby Asia-Pacific competition structure including Japan, the Pacific Islands, North and South America and Hong Kong.

The concept includes linking high-performance programmes of such nations into the potential competition structure. The aim is to deliver a competitive and sustainable international pathway that can align to both current and future considerations around the international calendar.”

Rugby will probably never be more popular in Japan than it is right now. It would be a shame to throw away the support and traction the sport has gained because there is no viable, international competition structure. DM


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