Japan’s season kicks off on Friday with big ambitions, tongue-twister team names and a rebranding that has left some fans wondering which version of the sport they will be watching.
Japanese rugby chiefs want to create “the best league in the world” with 2019 World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit and Australians Samu Kerevi and Quade Cooper among the foreign talent on show.
Organisers also plan to invite southern-hemisphere teams to play Japanese clubs in special “cross-border matches”.
But the rugby union competition’s new name – Japan Rugby League One – has confused some with its apparent reference to the 13-a-side version of the game.
And others have been left tongue-tied by rebranded team names such as NTT Communications Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu and NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes Osaka.
The launch has also been overshadowed by a whiff of scandal, with NEC Green Rockets Tokatsu firing Blake Ferguson this week after the former Australian rugby league international was arrested on drug charges.
The three-tier Japan Rugby League One – which replaces the old Top League – launches with a showpiece opener at Tokyo’s Olympic stadium on Friday.
“When the opportunity came across it was something I didn’t think twice about,” said Springbok flank Du Toit, who has joined Toyota Verblitz.
“I think rugby at the moment in Japan is a really fast and highly skilled game and that’s probably the way the game is going in the future.”
Du Toit is one of a number of high-profile international players who have moved to Japan in recent years.
Australia captain Michael Hooper and New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett both had stints there last season, while World Cup-winning Springboks Malcolm Marx and Willie le Roux return for the new campaign.
Japan Rugby League One chief operating officer Hajime Shoji told AFP that teams will continue to lure top overseas players, who are attracted in part by the salaries on offer.
And he said plans are afoot to invite southern-hemisphere sides to Japan to play the league champions.
“One thing that is different from what went before is that we’re looking outwards to the rest of the world and trying to connect,” he said.
Japanese clubs’ chances of signing more big names have been boosted by Australia’s loosening of the so-called ‘Giteau Law’, which bars overseas-based players from representing Australia unless they have appeared in at least 60 Tests.
A slight relaxation of the rule means more players are eligible to play for the Wallabies while plying their trade with teams overseas.
Kerevi, Cooper and Sean McMahon all played for Australia last year while keeping their lucrative Japanese club contracts.
But there is unlikely to be a recall for former Wallabies back Israel Folau, who has joined Shining Arcs for the new season.
Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia in 2019 for saying “hell awaits” gay people.
“So far he’s been wonderful – he’s a great man and he’s been doing a lot of great things for the team,” Shane Gates said of his controversial new teammate.
“Getting caught up in whatever’s happened in the past is not going to help us as a team.”
While eye-catching signings have grabbed the headlines, the biggest change for Japan’s new league is the way the clubs operate.
Previously, they were run as divisions of corporate behemoths such as Toyota and Panasonic and league matches were organised by the Japan Rugby Football Union.
Now, clubs are responsible for their own match-day operations and finding sponsors, and must play their games in a designated “home area”, taking steps towards finding a permanent stadium.
Clubs have also taken on new names in a bid to move them away from their corporate roots and establish ties with local communities.
League officials are keen to rekindle the excitement generated by the 2019 World Cup, which was watched by millions of Japanese.
The launch of the new league was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the South African Gates believes it is not too late to regain momentum.
“I think the world has seen the growth of the Japanese national rugby team,” he said.
“I think now they’re hoping the domestic competition can also make that step up.”
© Agence France-Presse