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Opinion

When will Japan join the Rugby Championship?

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Expert
18th November, 2019
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Now that we’re less than three months away from the start of the rugby season – and five months away from the end of the cricket season, but never mind – most of my rugby thinking is currently limited to two main and major questions.

When will Japan be admitted to the Rugby Championship, as seems highly likely? And why on earth are we starting the rugby season so early next year?

The come-down after Japan’s wonderful job hosting of the Rugby World Cup has been a gradual one, and it seems everyone is clambering to get their Japan fix into the future.

Japanese rugby has long been considered an afterthought, but suddenly when there’s new revenues and massive viewing audiences to be had, everyone wants a piece of that sweet Brave Blossom action.

In mid-October, before the knockout stage had even commenced, the first salvos were being fired.

“To be frank, after what Japan have done, I would argue rugby’s superpowers need Japan more than Japan need them,” former England international Ugo Monye wrote in The Guardian on October 15.

“There is no doubting Japan will be in demand to join a major yearly competition and from a selfish point of view, as someone who loves northern hemisphere rugby, I hope the Six Nations give it some consideration.”

Monye didn’t even shy away from his motivation behind his bold, if ambitious concept.

“Japan is a long way from Europe but that said, it’s a long way from all of the nations in the Rugby Championship too,” he wrote, using the best kind of schoolyard logic and reasoning.

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Of course, the real reason is obvious: money. The Six Nations knocked the idea of promotion and relegation on the head because the likes of Georgia, Germany or Spain aren’t going to bring anywhere near as much money into the tournament as Italy does.

Japan is a different story, though. Money has been flowing from Japanese rugby in all directions for years, and their hosting of the RWC showed them to be exactly the kind of new rugby market that the game eventually hopes North America can be.

Japan Rugby Union

(WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

Around the time of the final in Yokohama, Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel further suggested the idea of Japan being invited into the Six Nations had “been floated in private after it emerged that the Rugby Championship – the Southern Hemisphere equivalent – were dithering about including the fast-emerging Japanese and were proposing a delay of four or five years before sanctioning their involvement.”

Absolutely no-one would be surprised to hear of dithering within the SANZAAR corridors.

Of course, we know that SANZAAR also met during the World Cup, and you might even recall the report out of New Zealand that suggested a Japanese inclusion in the Rugby Championship was set to be discussed – along with the possible readmission of the Sunwolves back into Super Rugby – in Tokyo.

In typical SANZAAR ways, their statement a week later entitled ‘SANZAAR Looks to the Future’ clarified the whole murky mess.

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“The SANZAAR Executive Committee met in Tokyo prior to the Rugby World Cup semi-finals on Friday, 25 October. An agenda item dealing with the future of SANZAAR’s rugby structures re-confirmed the organisation’s commitment to the establishment of international and domestic pathways for Emerging Nations. SANZAAR will continue to engage with all stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region,” the statement read.

That’s not an extract – that was the whole statement.

A commitment to the establishment of continued engagement with stakeholders.

No wonder the Six Nations remain interested. Dithering, indeed.

So where are we up to, really?

Goodness knows. The start of the 2020 season is frighteningly close for this time of year, and you would expect that the new SANZAAR broadcast rights deals will be locked down and announced well before November 19, 2020, so discussions are obviously taking place currently and are probably even well advanced.

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The lack of even so much of a whisper since the SANZAAR meeting last month tells me the Sunwolves remain on death row from a Super Rugby point of view. The leaks would be coming thick and fast if there was even the slightest hint of smoke to this fire.

But what we do have next year is this ridiculously early start to the season, which in turn brings with it a Super Rugby final on June 20. Two weeks later, Australia will begin a two-Test series against Ireland in Brisbane and Sydney and a single Test against Fiji, with all three done by July 18.

Reece Hodge makes a break

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

We also know Brisbane will host the third Bledisloe Cup Test on the other side of the Rugby Championship, on October 17, and that end-of-year internationals have been pencilled in to start on November 2.

What that leaves in between is a 12-week window to accommodate six rounds and two travel weekends of the Rugby Championship, which is plenty of time, to say the least.

It only confirms my view from the outset that Super Rugby is starting at least two weeks early, and for no obvious reason… unless that reason is the accommodation of a five-team Rugby Championship in 2021?

One that would therefore require eight rounds to remain a full home-and-away tournament, and probably one extra travel weekend as well.

The question then becomes one of SANZAAR pulling off such a plan with less than a year before the deadline. Could they actually convert their commitment to the establishment of continued engagement with stakeholders into the Brave Blossoms actually playing in the Rugby Championship in 2021?

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You would hope so.

Because if Japan aren’t going to join the Rugby Championship in 2021, then when are they? Halfway through the next broadcast deal? At the start of the one after that? Are we really going to hold off until 2024 or 2025?

And if it’s not in 2021, then why on earth are we going to need to play Super Rugby with zinc cream on noses at the end of this summer?