Japanese rugby’s new League One is thinking big and aiming for the world

Scotland's Stuart McInally, center, celebrates after scoring a try during the Autumn International match between Scotland and Japan at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland on Saturday, November 20, 2021 (Malcolm Mackenzie / PA via AP)

Scotland’s Stuart McInally, center, celebrates after scoring a try during the Autumn International match between Scotland and Japan at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland on Saturday, November 20, 2021 (Malcolm Mackenzie / PA via AP)


Japan’s new professional rugby competition kicks off next month with the bold ambition of winning not only national but global audiences, attracting the world’s best players and expanding the sport’s presence in Asia.

Lotte Corporation President Genichi Tamatsuka, a former varsity rugby player who is now one of Japan’s most influential business leaders, has been appointed to lead Japan League One, which begins January 7 with a competition. between 24 teams in three divisions.

The league has financial backing from corporate heavyweights such as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Daiwa Securities Group and HITO-Communications. Team Owners are a directory of the biggest companies in Japan: Panasonic, Toshiba, Kobe Steel, and Toyota among them.

Describing his vision for the new league, Tamatsuka said that “a whole different world is coming”.

But some countries with established competitions may be wary of Japan and a league which, without a salary cap, could prove to be irresistible to the best players in the world.

Tamatsuka said that League One was inspired by the home success of the Japanese national team in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Japan became the first Asian country to host the quadrennial tournament and the first to reach the World Cup quarter-finals, beating Ireland and Scotland in the group stage.

The team’s success shattered the usual indifference of most Japanese sports fans to rugby and for the duration of the tournament the nation was captivated.

“All of Japan including kids, women, men, everyone was so excited for about six weeks. It was amazing, “said Tamatsuka.” We realized the potential of rugby. Maybe the spirit and values ​​of rugby which are integrity, maybe solidarity, respect and one for all, these things are pretty aligned with Japanese culture.

“So we thought it was really an opportunity to promote rugby as a sport higher and aim high.”

League One replaces the Japan Top League, which was already attracting some of the best players in the world, offering high salaries for a relatively short season compared to the British and European leagues. A total of 185 foreign players took part in the Top League in its last season, including 44 of the top eight nations in the world.

League operations manager Hajimi Shoji doesn’t deny that the league will be ambitious in its efforts to attract non-Japanese players. A strict salary cap is not allowed by Japanese law, but some form of salary constraint is envisaged. At the same time, the league aims to be competitive in its quest for the world’s rugby stars.

“The competition to get good players in the global market is surely getting more and more difficult and I think the environment in which to play rugby and the compensation is very important to keep our attractiveness to non-Japanese players,” said Shoji. “Here the teams and the companies are making a big investment in creating a better environment and, in terms of compensation, I think the expansion of the rugby market itself is very important.”

Shoji said the competition organizers are working with partner companies on a “compensation value program” to improve the financial conditions of players.

“Beyond that, I think our salary level for non-Japanese players will be maintained or even improved,” he said. “We would like to keep our competitive edge to get non-Japanese players. “

League One’s ambitions are ultimately global. Cross-border matches, possibly with teams from the Southern Hemisphere, could take place as early as its second season and discussions have already taken place on a more global club competition. Japan had a franchise, the Sunwolves, in Super Rugby, but its involvement ended when the COVID-19 pandemic ended the competition last year and forced it to mainly condense into a league for teams. from New Zealand and Australia.

“We will have the national competition in the first year,” Tamatsuka said. “However, we are seriously looking to have the opportunity to have world-class competition.

“We have been talking to different clubs, different countries and we are looking for this opportunity to really increase the value of this new league. I think the discussion is going pretty well. We’re pretty positive.

In the beginning, League One focused on Asia and establishing rugby in a thriving market.

“I really feel the potential of Asia,” Tamatsuka said. “The biggest market in terms of GDP is already Asia and after 2030 60% of growth will come from Asia.

“So Asia is the kind of potential for future growth. We don’t have a big (existing) league like you have in the southern hemisphere or in France or England, so we have to become the symbol of the league in Asia.


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