The recent signing by Hugh McMeniman to the Japanese rugby club Kubota Spears, the defection of league pinup boy Craig Wing to Mark Gerrard’s 2nd Division club NTT Communications, and the possible switch to union in Japan of ‘Special K’ creates a growing interest in what’s happening over there.
The Japanese have a professional Super 14 style competition called Top League. This was set up in 2003 by the JRFU with 12 teams but was later expanded to 14 in 2006. It’s designed to grow rugby union in Japan and to allow the national team, the Cherry Blossoms, to become more competitive.
The Top League runs from September through to February. The 2008 – 2009 series attracted around 400,000 punters to the 13 rounds and Finals series, which is called the Microsoft Cup. The standard is about Sydney’s Shute Shield level or Premier Grade in Brisbane. A base level contract for a foreign player is worth about A$100,000 + air fares, accommodation, car etc per season. Marquee players like Kefu, Larkham, Gregan and McMeniman can command upwards of $500,000. Nice little earner! However, the lifestyle is quite different with Japanese culture and etiquette a mile away from Willie Mason pissing up against a pub wall.
The professional rugby clubs are all owned by large Japanese corporations with most of the local players working for that company. It seems the imports, which are limited to three per club, are the only ones that don’t actually do too much ‘company’ work. From this year one of the three foreign imports has to be eligible to play for Japan and there is dispensation for recruiting an Asian player in each team as well. For instance, Craig Wing is half Filipino so qualifies as a local player.
There’s also the 2nd Division competition called the Top Challenge Series. There is a promotion relegation series involving two conferences, Top Challenge 1 and Top Challenge 2. There is automatic promotion for the teams that finished first and second in TC1, this year being Ricoh Black Rams and Honda Heat. They replace the teams that finished 13 and 14 in the Top League. The team that finished 3rd in TC1 and the TC2 winner take on the 11th and 12th Top League place getter respectively. 11th and 12th placed Kyuden Voltex and Fukuoka Sanix Blues both retained their Top League status.
Some well known hakujins (whitey’s) appearing in those games were Stephen Larkham for Ricoh, Sam Harris for Honda, Nathan Grey, Tim Atkinson and Tom McVerry for Kyuden, and Caleb Ralph for Sanix. Jone ‘Fingers’ Tawake and Troy Flavell are a couple of likely lads who feature in Div 2, for the Secom Rugguts and Mitsubishi Dynaboars respectively.
The four teams that contested this year’s semi-finals of the Top League Microsoft Cup were Suntory Sungoliath v Sanyo Wild Knights, played in Osaka and Toshiba Brave Lupus v Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers in Tokyo (both in February). Sanyo won 32-22, which included tries by Hale T-Pole and penalties by Ryan Nicholas. Toshiba had a comfortable win over Kobe 26-7 with tries by David Hill and Steven Bates amongst others. Other players of note were George Gregan, Elia Tuqiri, Adam Wallace-Harrison and James Hilgendorf.
The Final was played between Toshiba and Sanyo on 8 February. Toshiba defeat Sanyo 17-6 to win the Microsoft Cup and were crowned league champions.
Top tryscorers in the Top League competition included Daniel Heenan, Tim Atkinson, Brett Stapleton and William Ryder, the Fijian flyer. Shane Drahm, Thinus Delport and Tony Brown were on the leading pointscorer list.
They have another competition after the Top League is finished. It’s a ten team knockout over four weekends called the National Championship. The teams are the top six in the Top League, the top two university sides, the winner of the Top Challenge Series and the top club team. There was a bit of a scandal this year when a player returned a positive drug test, generally unheard of in Japan. In typical Japanese fashion, Toshiba Brave Lupus withdrew from the tournament when the B sample for Christian Loamanu also tested positive to weed.
In the Final this year Sanyo 24 defeated Suntory 16 to become All Japan Champion. Suntory is of course where Eddie Jones is a technical adviser. Tony Brown was the Sanyo samurai who brought about the Sungoliath’s downfall.
I’ve only mentioned Australian or Kiwi players; however, there’s about 125,000 registered rugby players in Japan. The Cherry Blossoms have recently been playing in the Pacific Nations Cup where they cam 5th, last month Japan hosted the IRB U20 Junior World Cup and they have a very strong bid in for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. They have large modern stadiums, potential TV markets and a yen for sport. It looks like Japan is going to be a continuing popular destination for professional players in years to come.
If you wonder what happened to these blokes, they’re all in Japan: Leon MacDonald, Reuben Thorne, Jaco Van der Westhuyzen, Damian McInally, Joel Wilson and Radike Samo.
The 14 Top League clubs are: Sanyo Wild Knights, Toshiba Brave Lupus, Ricoh Black Rams, Honda Heat, Coca Cola West Red Sparks, Kintetsu Liners, Toyota Verblitz, Yamaha Subilo, Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers, Suntory Goliath, NEC Green Packers, Kubota Spears, Fukuoka Sanix Blues and Kyuden Voltex.