Talking in Codes : Top League Rugby Union (Rugby in Japan, part 1)
Posted by stefanole on 2010/01/13
My first taste of Top League rugby came on a Sunday in November, the day after I saw J. League newcomers Fagiano Okayama in action at their home ground, the Momotaro Stadium. The games in Fukuoka and Kobe were similarly played at Association football grounds, rather than dedicated rugby football facilities (Avispa Fukuoka’s Level 5 Stadium and Vissel Kobe’s Home’s Stadium respectively).
These games were not the first time I had seen rugby in Japan, but they were my first with Claire (an Okayama JET). Back in May, I had gone with a friend to Osaka to catch a couple of games at the 2009 IRB Junior World Championship (which was eventually won by New Zealand, and in which Japan finished 15th of 16 teams). The games were played at the Kintetsu Hanazono Rugby Stadium, the oldest dedicated rugby union stadium in Japan (opened in 1929).
I must admit that prior to that, I was largely ignorant of the extent of rugby participation in Japan, although this is partly due to the fact that there are no professional (i.e. Top League) teams in the Chugoku area. The game we saw in Okayama was a one-off fixture, though there was also a one-off game in Hiroshima that we were unable to go to. There is a Hiroshima rugby team however, the Mazda Blue Zoomers, which competes in the amateur Top Kyushu A League. After winning their league, they are set for a playoff against teams from the Kansai and Kanto leagues, to win a place in next year’s Top League. Since I am planning on going to that game, I will write a follow-up report at a later date, with a more in-depth analysis of the league system (since there is next to zero information in English on the Internet).
Our backgrounds coming to these games could not have been more different. I come from a rugby town whose team, Northampton Saints, have been described as “a union powerhouse”, a status matched by their winning the European Rugby Cup in 2000. The Saints also won the European Challenge Cup in 2009, which is the junior competition to the ERC. While I lived in France, I attended roughly a dozen games of the local team, Section Paloise, who play in the second tier of French rugby (Pro D2). La Section have won the European Challenge Cup also, in 2000.
On the other hand, Claire had only ever experienced a football code which I’ve never myself seen first-hand (American football, specifically the Chicago Bears), and had never seen a game of Association football (soccer) before she came to Japan. Her first experience of football was, unfortunately, in Okayama, and she would probably have avoided watching another game for as long as she lived, were it not for my Sanfrecce-based intervention. As for rugby though, she had not even seen a game on television, let alone in person, so she really had no idea what she was letting herself in for.
RUGBY UNION IN JAPAN
Youth rugby is in a healthy state in Japan, and I was surprised to learn that the national high school rugby tournament (全国高等学校ラグビーフットボール大会), held at the Hanazono, actually predates the establishment of the Japan Rugby Football Union in 1926. The rugby tournament is as old as its corresponding soccer tournament, but the more famous Koshien baseball tournament is two years older than both. Onomichi High School represented Hiroshima at this year’s Rugby Zenkoku, where they beat Nagano’s Iida HS 51-5, but lost in the second round to reigning champions Jōshō Gakuen of Osaka 5-12. (Highlights of all games in the tournament can be viewed by clicking the blue scores, including this try by Onomichi’s hooker.)
Even more surprising is the fact that Japan has a comparatively high level of participation in rugby: according to the International Rugby Board’s statistics, Japan is sixth in the world for registered players, with 122,598. Japan’s senior team has risen to the rank of 13th in the world, after beating Canada in two test matches recently. This combination of increased participation and international success has led some commentators to describe rugby’s future in Japan as “extremely promising”.
THE TOP LEAGUE
One reason for the growing success of Japanese rugby has to be the establishment of the Top League, in 2003. One major aim of the Top League is to improve Japan’s performance at the Rugby World Cup. At the 2003 RWC, which England eventually won, Japan finished bottom of Group B with no points. The Top League was also created as a means of driving up the popularity and the standard of rugby in Japan at all levels, but not as a means of encouraging the development of professional rugby per se. The main evidence for this is that while the Top League is in its seventh season, its teams are not fully professional (i.e. they employ some part-time players), and so the league is classified as semi-professional. Therefore, professionalism in rugby in Japan is a by-product of improving standards rather than a goal.
The Top League shares some similarities with pro soccer and pro baseball in Japan. Like the J. League, there is a system of promotion and relegation. Whereas J. League teams have a strong local identity and independent incorporation however, the Top League’s teams are unashamedly company teams, meaning that the players are employed by the company rather than the club (and that the club is controlled by the company). While Association football (soccer) and baseball have been able to fully professionalise, many players in the Top League are still semi-professional, and rugby is heavily reliant on corporate support. This reality is summed up by Japan national team coach John Kirwan, who acknowledges that Japanese rugby is “driven by multinational corporations”. Rugby is not alone in this, since professional baseball teams are also heavily subsidised by their parent companies. After the Yokohama Flugels incident however, the J. League has taken steps to move soccer away from the hands of corporations and into those of the fans.
The Top League also demonstrates a heavy Southern Hemisphere influence, specifically from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Firstly, the foreign player berths are almost exclusively taken by southern hemisphere players. Secondly, the format is copied almost verbatim from the SANZAR Super 14 competition, which pits teams from the three previously mentioned countries against each other. Thirdly, even the Top League’s colours (gold, green and black) appear to have been chosen to demonstrate this link. There have even been mutterings of bringing two Japanese teams into the Super 14 competition, but these were made as a bargaining tactic to discourage South Africa from withdrawing its teams, and probably will not happen any time soon. Japan coach Kirwan talked down the possibility of the Super 14 inviting Japanese teams to compete, noting that basing an expansion team (which would be expected to pay for itself) in Tokyo would be pointless: “all we’re going to do is annoy Toyota, which has a $US1 billion marketing budget”. The transition from the more obscure corporate rugby leagues to the Top League appears to have been more a rebranding exercise than anything, and the money that is sunk into it apparently comes out of the parent companies’ advertising and public/business relations budgets.
COMPARISON WITH THE J. LEAGUE
The aims behind the creation of the Top League (2003) and the J. League (1993) were very similar, but both have gone about achieving their aims very differently. Originally, the J. League was founded with ten teams (of which Sanfrecce Hiroshima was one), with all the teams (with the notable exception of Shimizu S-Pulse) being created from company teams that had previously competed in the Japan Soccer League. (Toyo Kogyo/Mazda Soccer Club, Sanfrecce’s antecedent, was also a founding member of the Japan Soccer League in 1965, and won its first four editions.) The teams decided to name themselves after the city in which they were based, but they were still heavily supported by their original parent company (and in some cases, for example Urawa Red Diamonds and Mitsubishi Motors, they still are).
The J. League seemed to come of age in 1998 however, as corporate interference in the league nearly caused a fan revolt. All Nippon Airways and Sato Kogyo decided that they could no longer afford to support their team (the Yokohama Flugels), and so they approached their counterparts at Nissan (sponsors of the Yokohama Marinos) with a view to a merger. Without consulting fans, the decision to merge the teams (into the Yokohama F. Marinos) was announced. before the 1998 season had even finished. Rotten eggs thrown by angry fans rained down on executives from both clubs, one Flugels official was hit by a megaphone thrown from the stands, and in some cases Flugels fans were even heard to chant “Crash! Crash! Crash!” whenever an ANA plane was spotted overhead. The Flugels went on to win the Emperor’s Cup that year against S-Pulse, but the deed was done. As one blogger puts it, “If there’s one thing that Japanese corporations struggle to do, it’s admit making a mistake.”
While some feared (or even hoped) that the Flugels incident would herald the end of the J. League, the ship was righted with the announcement of the “Hundred Year Vision” in 1999. The main thrust of the Vision was that clubs would move away from relying too much on major national sponsors, and build better relationships with their home towns at grassroots level. Essentially, the key word became ‘sustainability’, and the J. League now stipulates for example that each J. League team must run a comprehensive youth football programme, as well as be independent of any parent company. These ideals are in line with the German “Sports Schule” concept beloved of the J. League committee, with its community roots and family-friendly organisation . The staging of the 2002 World Cup in Japan was also a major boost for Japanese football, as the team topped Group H but fell in the Round of 16 to Turkey (who eventually finished third). Meanwhile, the Japanese rugby union team has appeared in six Rugby World Cups, but has only one one game (52-8 against Zimbabwe in 1991).
The Top League has made slower progress than the J. League, but up to now has also suffered less teething problems. The two leagues are now diverging after similar beginnings, in that they were both founded from company teams which were still heavily influenced (and funded) by their parent companies. While the J. League has been moving sharply away from the top-down model which precipitated the Flugels disaster however, the Top League’s teams and the league itself have not continued to evolve from their corporate roots.
RUGBY’S GREAT SCHISM
It is important also to consider Japanese rugby in its global context: rugby union has always had a tricky relationship with professionalism. Indeed, it would be fair to say that rugby union’s identity was predicated on a rejection of professionalism. Ideological differences over this led to the creation in 1895 of a rugby football code that specifically allowed professionals, and a governing body which eventually became the Rugby Football League. For 100 years, anyone who played in a game of rugby league was banned sine die by the Rugby Football Union, for having “professionalised” themselves. (Rugby League survives today as another football code, with thirteen instead of fifteen players among other differences, though ironically it enjoys only amateur status in Japan.) This split was precipitated at least in part by the Football Association’s decision ten years earlier to modify the Laws of the Game, in order to allow professional players to compete according to their football code (which is known today as soccer). So, while there was an increasing number of players in the amateur JSL who made their money entirely from playing football, it could be argued that the ban on professionalism in rugby union is at least partly to blame for the diminished position that professional rugby now enjoys compared with football. Rugby League survives today as another football code, though ironically it enjoys only amateur status in Japan.
As early as the 1970s however, foreign rugby players were coming to Japan to play an “amateur” sport, and this figure had grown to over a hundred playing in the Japanese corporate leagues by 1994. Japan was far from alone in quietly ignoring the ban on allowing professionals to play the game, and the Rugby Football Union must have realised that a strict enforcement of their own rules would have lead to a marked decline in the quality of domestic and international rugby. The growing media interest that followed the build-up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup has lead scholars to describe the move to professionalisation as “inevitable”. The Union’s hypocrisy was becoming increasingly obvious, with players like England captain Will Carling admitting publicly that all of his earnings came directly from playing rugby, and criticism of the RFU’s stance spilled over into the mainstream press. The “Great Schism” was finally ended two months after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in which Japan finished bottom of Pool C behind New Zealand, Ireland and Wales.
IT’S TOUGH AT THE TOP LEAGUE
As the saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Top League’s model of top-down financing may not seem ideal when viewed in the context of the J. League, but as we have seen, the future seems bright for Japanese rugby. It is becoming clear however, that the Top League’s teams are not immune to difficulties off the field after all.
The repercussions are not yet clear, but the Top League may be currently suffering its own Flugels-style incident. In November 2009, mid-table side Yamaha Jubilo announced that they would be cutting all seventeen professionals from next season, including the former captain of the New Zealand national team, Reuben Thorne. (The fact that the Yamaha squad comprises 42 players, and that the team can barely field a team of full professionals as it is, is a good indication of the extent of professionalisation in the Top League.) These rugby professionals will presumably be replaced by regular employees of Yamaha Motors, reminiscent of the scene in 300 when King Leonidas asks the Arcadians: “What is your profession?” Yamaha’s actions follow those of other corporate teams lower down the league system, who have already let their professionals go in order to cut costs in the “tough business environment”.
Now, I personally suspect that Yamaha’s actions are meant as a warning to the Top League and the Japanese Union, rather than a signal of meaningful intent. It is one thing for a lower-league team to let its professionals go – after all, the teams in these leagues are meant to be for employees of the company. It would be a disaster for the Top League’s image though, if one of its teams ‘de-professionalised’, and I don’t think it will be allowed to happen. I believe that this announcement is meant as a political manoeuvre, similar to the one the J. League orchestrated some months ago. In that case, the J. League announced publicly that Tokyo Verdy would be expelled from the league and declared bankrupt if it were unable to stump up the cash to keep itself afloat. The cause of Verdy’s misfortune was apparently the fact that main sponsor, Nippon Television, withdrew its support after the team was relegated to J. League Division 2 (yes NTV, there is relegation in football). Behind the scenes though, the J. League were apparently adamant that they would not let Verdy fold, and that the hardball tactics were necessary in order to scare up the required cash (a tactic which was eventually successful).
But how did we get to this point? One potential problem is that the Top League may have copied the Super 14’s template a little too closely. Like the Super 14, the Top League has 14 teams. Teams in the Super 14, presumably because of the distances involved in travelling between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, play each other once (with a playoff to determine the overall winner). Teams in the Japanese Top League, who only have to play other teams in Japan, also play each other once (with a playoff at the end of the season). Why is this?
One possible reason is that the Top League may wish to avoid scheduling conflicts with the J. League, since it plays matches at stadiums that are mainly used for football (such as Home’s Stadium in Kobe, the home of Vissel Kobe, and Level 5 Stadium in Fukuoka, the home of Avispa Fukuoka). The less matches there are, the easier it is to book venues, but if the Top League wanted to avoid the football season altogether, it could begin two months later and have almost no overlap. I suspect that if scheduling problems were so acute as to make a shortened season necessary, then this would already have happened. With no football from January to March (after the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day), and no league football after the first week of December, there is plenty of room for a home/away season. And besides, if there is a football match on the Saturday, why not schedule the rugby for a Sunday where it won’t clash, as happened in Okayama? As it is, a thirteen-round league season has consequences for ticket and sales revenue, as well as for attracting (and maintaining) fan interest in the long-term.
Another obstacle that prevents teams for putting down roots, other than the fact that only two teams (the Blues and the Steelers) mention their home town anywhere in their names, is that they are asked to play their home games all over the country. As well as one-off games in the provinces (including one in Hiroshima and the one we saw in Okayama), teams play their home matches in cities all over their “home” region. Last year, Fukuoka Sanix Blues played one game at their designated home ground; their other “home” games were played in Nagasaki and Kumamoto, and the other “Fukuoka” teams played in Oita, Kagoshima and Saga as well as Fukuoka’s Level 5 Stadium. Spreading the Top League so thinly across the country may be helping to encourage more youngsters to take up the sport, but if Yamaha’s cry for help is anything to go by, something needs to change if the Top League is to have any hope of supporting itself in the future. Incidentally, it should not come as a surprise that Kobe (and to a lesser extent Fukuoka Sanix Blues) were the best-supported of any of the teams we saw, although Kyuden Voltex deserve an honourable mention for the creepy synchronised mini-flag waving routines that the company men and women put together.
In short, there is an obvious conflict between the interests of the Japanese Rugby Football Union, and the corporations that sponsor the individual teams (and thus, I suspect, subsidise the league and the JRFU). While the JRFU has more philanthropic aims of spreading the sport of rugby across the country, and its celebrated (by rugby fans at least) “rugby values”, it is clear that the status quo is not acceptable to the corporations involved (which, as we have seen, are regarded as the real power behind Japanese rugby).
It would seem that the current economic climate has served as a reminder that, while the Top League has enjoyed considerable financial leeway in the past, the corporations involved will not allow their rugby teams to be an unreasonable drain on their budgets. That is not to say that the corporations have been expecting to see a direct return on their investment: indeed, the feeling I get from reading the comments of insiders and from attending games is that the corporations see their teams as good public relations (with the intangible benefits that this implies), as well as being a potential selling point for recruitment and maintaining morale within a company (something Kyuden are keen to exploit if their performance in Fukuoka is anything to go by).
As cost-cutting is now the order of the day however, the Top League and its teams’ joint aims of increasing participation, and increasing brand recognition, are falling out of step. As such, the JRFU will need to think about how it can strike a balance between its needs and the needs of its company teams, and it will probably consider at least some of the changes outlined above.
The companies themselves should also take note of the example set by the J. League, and consider whether their needs would be best served by (paradoxically, to the corporate mind) stepping back and taking a less-visible role in managing their teams. No sports fan picks a team based on the company that sponsors it; they choose one based on its history and/or home town. As such, I would say that it is difficult to form attachments to teams that are essentially extensions of a particular company’s brand image. Instead of having an attitude of “build it and they will come”, Top League teams could build better relations by taking a more community-centred approach. We shall see in the coming years if the Top League moves in this direction, or if the corporations consolidate their influence and centralise their control over Japanese rugby.
2019 RUGBY WORLD CUP: MADE IN JAPAN
The biggest factor in Yamaha’s decision to make their cry for help a public one, is probably the decision of the International Rugby Board, made in July 2009, to award the 2019 Rugby World Cup to Japan for the first time. As a future host, Japan’s domestic rugby league will come under closer scrutiny, meaning that its teams may be emboldened to demand more of the Japanese union.
Also relevant to the Top League teams’ interests, is the fact that Japan is a designated ‘Tier 2’ rugby nation. This means that it is a target for development, presumably in the form of monetary and infrastructural support, with the SANZAR countries primarily responsible for this as Japan is considered to be within their sphere of influence. (English rugby is taking a similar responsibility for the development of rugby in the USA and Canada.)
There is also talk that the Japanese government is targeting a quarter-finals place at the next RWC. With only a year to go, this would entail concentrated investment in the top level of the game if Japan are to break into the world’s top eight teams (remembering that Japan are currently ranked 13th in the world). As such, it looks like the only way is up for Japanese rugby, and it goes without saying that close cooperation between the Top League, the JRFU and the Japanese government will be necessary if Japan are to be a host worthy of the Rugby World Cup.
Titled “A Tender for Asia”, Japan won the bid for the hosting rights to the 2019 edition with a promise to host games in Hong Kong and Singapore, but the IRB is apparently now keen to play all the games in Japan. The other major promises made were to increase attendance by 200%, and to increase participation by 160%.
The former promise is a rather formidable, and dare I say, unrealistic aim. The Top League averages attendances of around 5,000 currently, and we must bear in mind that figure includes the double-counting of spectators at double-header matchdays (of which there are several). This is despite the fact that the company employee-heavy crowd usually ignores the game which doesn’t feature their company (and what real sports fan would turn their nose up at what is essentially a free game?) The phenomenon is so endemic at Top League double-headers in Japan, that the designated fan zones actually overlap: “fans” of one team are expected to vacate their seats in the fan zone (and presumably go home) before the next game starts, because that zone then becomes the fan zone of another team. It was a really quite extraordinary arrangement that leads me to question the Top League’s official figures (although for 500yen a game in Fukuoka, can I really complain?)
So, let’s compare those figures with the J. League attendance figures. Well, for a start, the numbers aren’t really comparable. The J. League doesn’t count free tickets towards its attendance figures (and really, 500yen is practically free, right?) Still, an average of 5,000 does not compare favourably with the J. League’s 19,126 for the 2009 season. It is also inferior to J2’s average of 6,326 for 2009 (and bear in mind that three sides were promoted to J2 this year that were playing amateur football last year). I do not see rugby challenging football as a major spectator sport in Japan, not even in ten years’ time. The killer fact for me is that the Guinness Premiership, England’s top rugby union league, pulled in an average of 11,786 spectators for the 2008-09 season. In order to achieve its aim, the Top League would have to rival the domestic league in the home of rugby for popularity, an unlikely proposition.
The fact is, that rugby in Japan is probably punching far above its weight as it is (so long as the stated average of 5,000 is accurate: three of the four matches we saw struggled to average half that, and even those diminished numbers were probably overstated). The J. League’s averages are achieved with over a million registered football players in Japan, which gives an idea of the level of participation and awareness necessary to make a professional sports league a success. Contrast this with the fact that the Top League draws about a quarter of the crowd of a J1 game, with almost one twelfth as many registered rugby players nationwide, and this would suggest that the (semi-)professional rugby in Japan is already oversubscribed. This also gives us an idea as to the shortfall that is made up by the corporations’ deep pockets, as J. League teams are expected to be profitable corporations in their own right.
As for the second promise, that of increasing participation by 160%, that would entail bringing the number of registered players up to around 200,000, an increase of around 80,000. Again, this is a tall ask, but one area that can be vastly improved is female participation in the sport. According to the International Rugby Board, there are a total of 1,055 women and girls registered with a rugby club in the entirety of Japan. To put it another way, there are 9 female rugby players for every 100,000 male ones in Japan. With numbers like these, articles about the potential there is in women’s rugby in Japan seem a little obvious. However, I believe that growth in the women’s game in Japan is vital if the JRFU are to achieve their aim. Indeed, the process may already have begun, as I spotted a poster after the games in Fukuoka advertising the zenkoku high school rugby tournament. The photo used was of a high school girl in her sailor’s uniform about to put the ball in at a scrum. I suspect that there is a comprehensive PR victory on offer for any corporation willing to chance their arm on closing the gender gap in Japan, and invest in women’s rugby. Perhaps then, by the time 2019 comes around, a parallel women’s Top League could be formed.
Yamaha Jubilo 32-13 Coca Cola West Red Sparks
The first game we saw then, was the troubled Yamaha versus Coca Cola. The novelty of a rugby match clearly was not enough to draw the spectators, as the Top League claims an attendance of 1,953 for the match. (For comparison, the J2 match between Fagiano and Ventforet Kofu the previous day drew 8,532 to watch the home team try to haul itself off the bottom of the league.)
The standard of rugby was not the best either, and there was quite an obvious disparity in the ability levels of the two sides. Since both sides are safely mid-table in the Top League, this should not have been the case. In reality, Coca Cola were quite awful, and Yamaha did not really have to stretch themselves as they ran in four tries to Coca Cola’s one. Yamaha were even fielding an under-strength side, as star player Reuben Thorne (listed in the Top League’s Best XV) was absent.
Coca Cola displayed poor discipline, as they had a played sin-binned just before the break, and their defence was similarly poorly-organised. As we were watching Yamaha patiently break down Coca Cola’s defence in the second half, their intentions were so clearly telegraphed that I was able to tell Claire to start recording a video on her compact camera as I shot photos with mine. Sure enough, within a minute Yamaha had broken through to score a try right in front of us. Apparently Coca Cola did not get the memo, but to me it was obvious that Yamaha needed to switch the attack to the near side to find the gaps. With a neat diagonal chip, this is exactly what happened, and NAKASONO Shinji chased the ball down to score in the corner. No more points were scored after GOROMARU Ayumu scored the conversion, as Yamaha were able to close the game out for the remaining twenty minutes. They had already scored the four tries required for a bonus point, and all that remained was to close down the game until the final whistle.
The game was a bit of a wash despite the five tries, as they were conceded through poor defence as much as scored by entertaining rugby. There was an interesting incident after the game however, as we hung around in the stand after the match, just above where the players were filtering out or signing things for fans. One foreign member of the Yamaha staff spotted us watching (and taking photos) as he was heading out, and stopped to ask us where we were from. “England”, I replied with a smile (although since Claire is American this was only half true). A funny look crossed the man’s face, almost as though I had insulted him, and he resumed his journey to the exit. After having read Tim Atkinson’s (Australian centre with Kyuden Voltex) comments that Japanese rugby is “… not the dour kicking-type affair that you get in Europe!” however, perhaps this sort of reaction is understandable: we wouldn’t want the Japanese to get confused about whose rugby is the “right” sort.
Our next Top League matches were part of a rugby double-header played at Avispa Fukuoka’s Level 5 Stadium. The Level 5 Stadium is scheduled to host games for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. We took a shuttle bus from Fukuokakuko subway station to the Hakata no Mori sports complex, and were initially impressed with the organisation. This changed however, when we realised that there was just the one shuttle bus for the entire event, and that it departed without us just ten minutes after the final whistle.
It was obvious as we waited for the bus to leave Fukuokakuko, that the Fukuoka Sanix Blues were the best-supported team. Sanix is a sanitation and environmental management company based in Fukuoka. About half of the people on the bus had any identifiable fan paraphernalia, and those who did were supporting the Blues. This was surprising to me, since Kyuden Voltex also call Fukuoka home. All was explained when we saw their previously mentioned “fanbase” however, since it appeared to be totally made up of company employees.
The Top League’s official attendance figures list the first game’s attendance as 2,454, and the second one’s as 2,974. I assume though that since the Sanix and Ricoh fans left after their game, the Kyuden and Toyota fans must have arrived in time for their game only. That would explain why there were no Kyuden fans on the bus, although equally that might have been because the Kyuden fans took their company cars instead. Since there were no turnstiles at the Level 5, I can only guess that the Top League took the attendance figure of the first game, added on the number of tickets sold after the start of that game, and called that the attendance for the second game. Whatever, it was still a very poor showing for nearly three hours of rugby, and it makes a mockery of the Top League’s claim of 5,000 spectators on average, especially when two of the teams were playing in their “home” town.
The game between Sanix and Ricoh was very entertaining for spells, with both teams visibly going for it. It was Sanix who seemed to have a little bit extra power going forward though, and they did a professional job in nudging the score up, despite the fact that possession of the ball seemed to be equally distributed. I was glad to see a closer game after Coca Cola were comprehensively outfoxed and outmuscled by Yamaha in Okayama, but going by league position, Sanix should have demonstrated a clearer advantage over the visitors from Tokyo. Ricoh beat Mazda in the Top Challenge Series last year to gain promotion to the Top League, but they have played well enough over the course of the season to avoid the automatic relegation places (though they will still face a playoff, as I will explain in my next article).
Kyuden and Toyota was a completely different proposition, with Toyota dominating for eighty minutes. Kyuden represent the Kyushu Electric Power Company (Kyushu Denryoku). Some loose defending from Toyota allowed Kyden two tries, but the problem for them was that Toyota ran in eight, including a brace from fullback Steven Yates. Yates has played Rugby Sevens for New Zealand since 2007, and he scored his two tries with ease, looking almost embarrassed at the congratulations of his teammates. The scores took him to seven tries for the season. Toyota will have to tighten their defence if they expect to do well in the Microsoft Cup (the competition that decides the overall Top League winner). It’s bad news for Kyuden though, as they eventually finished bottom and will be relegated back to the Kyushu League for the 2010 season. The Top League will therefore revert back to having two teams from the Kyushu rugby area for next year, unless Mazda or Chugoku Electric can gain promotion at the end of the season (though both teams are actually based in Chugoku).
Kobe Kobelco Steelers 33-53 Toshiba Brave Lupus
Our final match of the Top League season saw us make a return to the Kobe Home’s Stadium, after we watched the J. League’s Vissel Kobe draw with Kyoto Sanga back in October. Along with Fukuoka’s Level 5 Stadium, Home’s Stadium will also be hosting games at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and it also hosted three games at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
I suspected that, since Kobelco were in fifth going into this game, they might be slightly better supported than the home other teams we had seen so far. The fact that this was the final league game of the season (not withstanding playoffs and other cups) also led me to think that the game might be reasonably well attended, and this was confirmed when we tried to buy some snacks at the next-door Family Mart and saw that the queue stretched to the length of the store. It was also good to see a good number of high-school students in attendance, including those from school rugby clubs.
One disappointment for me was that Home’s roof was actually closed, though my disappointment was for selfish reasons. The quality of light was ruined as the sunlight was cut out, and the match had to rely on the stadium’s dimmer floodlights. My photos were noisier as a result, but indoor heating ensured that the temperature was comfortable at least.
Kobelco’s performance was equally disappointing, as both their pack and their backs succumbed to waves of Toshiba attacks. In fact, we had to wait 38 minutes for Kobe to even get some points on the board, and they were 7-31 down at the break. The home team’s tactics were similarly uninspiring, as at least two of their tries were scored as a result of their forwards managing to drive the ball over the try-line, although Toshiba also scored tries this way.
Although this was a match between two good Top League teams (fifth and third respectively), the match was plagued by some of the same defensive and handling errors as the others we have seen. The fact that the Top League is a comparatively high-scoring league is indeed a big plus-point, and this match had the highest combined score and number of tries that we have seen so far (85 points and 13 tries, 5 tries to 8). The high number of turnovers has also been lauded in some quarters as a virtue of Top League rugby, but the other side of the coin is that technique is so poor that turnovers and penalties are often conceded through poor or unintelligent play rather than forced by original and exciting rugby (there were far too many offsides, for example). Still, it was another reasonably exciting game, and Toshiba’s fly-half David Hill got the plaudits his two tries and six conversions deserved, as well as for his direction of the Toshiba attacks during the match. Hill, a New Zealander whose stay at Bristol Rugby in England was shortened by injury, was the top points scorer and third highest try scorer in the Top League last season. An honourable mention also goes to Steven Bates, who got a hattrick of tries for Toshiba. Overall, this match (as well as the others we’ve seen, for the most part) was characterised by incisive attacking rugby from the foreign players: for example, eight of the thirteen tries in this match were scored by the foreign players from either team, despite the fact that Top League teams are limited to three foreigners per (fifteen-man) team. This proves that Japanese domestic rugby is still very much shaped by its foreign players, which renders Kyuden Voltex’ coach’s assertion that the foreign players in the Top League “cancel each other out” as largely meaningless and disingenuous.
Still, there was plenty of entertainment to be had in all the games we’ve seen, which is why we keep going back. The rugby was good enough that Claire wondered aloud as to whether she could go back to watching American football, with its copious padding and endless breaks in play. But, as she pointed out to me, why would Toshiba want to name their team after a skin disease?
TALKING IN CODES: PART TWO
In part two, I will be investigating the league structure of Japanese rugby union, and the part that Hiroshima’s Mazda Blue Zoomers plays in it. Myself and Claire will be going to see the Blue Zoomers, the Top Kyushu League champions, take on the NTT Shining Arcs, the Kanto League champions, at the Coca Cola West Rugby Stadium Hiroshima on Saturday 16th January at 2:30.