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Opinion

Japanese rugby is a wolf in sheep’s clothing - Australia and NZ must align their strategy or they'll both be eaten

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Roar Rookie
20th December, 2023
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6019 Reads

It is easy to hate Europe. It has the Six Nations that does what it wants when it wants. It has clubs who take all the best players from all over the world.

They are the pack of wolves that most see and don’t trust. When they suggest good things few take them at their word and want to know their angle.

But what about the wolf that no one recognises? While Japan hides in plain sight, they have their eyes firmly on being the powerhouse of the rest of world.

They have been quietly going about their business, climbing one step at a time. But at some point they will show their teeth and bite off the hand that has been feeding them. Maybe a wolf with Eddie Jones’ face might wake people up.

In 1995 Japan were beaten 145-17 at the World Cup by New Zealand. They were well down the pecking order and physically seemed to struggle – which wasn’t expected to get better with professionalism.

But step-by-step they have become less like sheep.

If you hate European clubs who have their private backers put in 5% of the clubs income how do you feel about giant corporations putting in 75% of the money?

In 2003 Japan got the Top League as its first national league – which was a big win funded by the companies who loved rugby. This allowed them improve their national team via residence rules to improve results.

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In 2003 Japan had three non-Japanese players in their squad, all New Zealanders. In 2007 it had jumped to eight with more players coming from the Pacific islands who were getting contracts in Japan.

Some changes that show the development of the Top League included going from two to three overseas players on the field for a team at one time in 2008, with an additional Asian player also allowed.

In 2009 one of the three overseas players had to be eligible for the national side, thus helping them to get better players into their national side.

Fast forward three years and Eddie is about to help them make waves.

Eddie Jones, Head Coach of Japan celebrates with Hiroshi Yamashita of Japan after the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between Samoa and Japan at Stadium mk on October 3, 2015 in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

At the 2012-2015 World Cup cycle they announced themselves on the international stage, beating South Africa, Wales and Italy. They also broke into the top 10 for the first time, achieving what seemed an impossible task. The national team was now seen as a legitimate force in Test rugby.

In 2016 the Sunwolves joined Super Rugby with the Jaguars and Southern Kings. The Sunwolves were meant to be filled with the top players from the Top League but the Union forgot to tell the clubs. It was deemed the clubs weren’t good enough and the clubs hated that Japanese money was going to other people. 2017 was the only year they didn’t finish last.

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A team that was meant to be the best that Japan had to offer were terrible and many called for their expulsion. The Top League announced that as the World Cup was going to interfere with the Top League they were going to move its dates in 2019 and 2020. In the two steps forward they permanently rearranged the league to compete with Super Rugby, meaning any continuation of the Sunwolves was not in Japan’s best interest.

Prior to the change, many players from Super Rugby chose to take paydays in Japan rather than go play international matches. Those not good enough for Test level were no real loss.

The unions didn’t mind losing a few Test players, it wasn’t the end of the world. When the Top League moved to clash with Super Rugby players nol onger could get the best of both worlds.

For Australia and South Africa more players chose Japan, putting pressure on their Super Rugby teams. In 2019 Willie Le Roux became the first player to win a World Cup while contracted to a Japanese team. In 2023 that number rose to eight players. Players like Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete moved to Japan full-time.

In 2019 32 players were contracted to Japanese clubs in the Top League, four years later it is 50 players.

Australia felt this bite the most as those who stayed in Super Rugby but were not Test standard now sat at home for six months waiting for Super Rugby to restart. Now players have to either trust they will get international money or be happy with less wages.

Recently the Top League changed its name to League One with some structural changes. The Union, now aligned with the private Clubs are using the Sunwolves money to bring over teams from Super Rugby. This year has seen Japan sign agreements with Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby separately seeing more games.

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The questions fans should be asking at this point is why are A sides and Super Rugby teams worth it. Yes it’s easy money for the Unions but what are fans in Australia and New Zealand giving up for these things to happen? What do Japan think they are getting out of this?

Eddie Jones (R), Director of rugby of Suntory Sungoliath, speaks with Sam Cane of Suntory Sungoliath prior to the NTT Japan Rugby League One match between Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay and Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath at Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground on December 10, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

The Blues and Chiefs are heading to Japan to play the four best domestic Japanese teams team in 2024. Other Super Rugby teams have also been playing them – like the Brumbies. In eight years, teams deemed no more than Shute Shield level are now playing the best Super Rugby teams.

The shift is best summed up in Richie Mo’unga, who at 29 and in his prime, has turned his back on not only Super Rugby but New Zealand for a three year contract in Japan. He will not be the last and with the South Africans wage cap now 60% higher Super Rugby is the last place to fine a bargain.

In 2021 Ben Gunter, Jack Cornelsen (son of a Wallaby) and Dylan Riley all Australian born made their Japanese debuts against Australia. It’s not just the players lost from the Test side, but all the ones who don’t even make it, who are either bypassing Super Rugby or not staying there long enough. At least 19 players have left Super Rugby in 2023 to play in Japan in 2024.

Japan know that Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby are not getting on very well. If Both Unions had worked together they could have gotten a better deal but instead they played them against each other allowing Japan to get the best deals for what they want.

If both Unions had worked together maybe there would be a Pacific Champions Cup that could have been commercialised.

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The Champions Cup and Challenge Cups has over 431,000 fans attend over two weekends. While not amazing figures its more than they would have got if it wasn’t on. Investec who recently went on their biggest every sponsorship of Rugby are paying money for the competition, if it didn’t exist there would be no money. Taking money for away games is fine but what are you building for yourself?

You are not helping to tackle the problem of falling crowds in Super Rugby. Instead of games being played around New Zealand or Australia engaging the next generation, these teams are off building up Japanese fans for Japanese teams. A person who comes and watches the Blues play Suntory Sungoliaths and likes the game is going to put money into Japanese pockets. The kids back home will find something else.

How long before all the Japanese clubs are playing all the Super Rugby teams in the mid-season break? They will until they discover that they can make the same money playing each other as they can the Super Rugby teams. The Union will still have the money but can spend it on other things.

We are seeing this happen at Test level too. Argentina got to play their B team against Chile (a World Cup opponent) while Georgia and Samoa were getting the good gigs against the Six Nation sides. The simple reason is that the other teams are cheaper to play but bring in just as much money. 54,000 watched Scotland play Georgia s- imilar to the 57,000 to watched them play Fiji in 2022.


While it’s great to receive money for playing Japan and a Japan XV between July and November all the games are in Japan.

Japan want to be in the Rugby Championship and it’s unclear if that will leave Australia and New Zealand better or worse off financially when it happens. All we know is that it will leave Japan much better off and in turn make rugby in Japan richer. All the fees they are currently paying will just go into something else – maybe player wages.

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With the Club World Cup getting closer do we think that League One will take one spot and give Super Rugby seven and Europe eight? If League One suggest it is fiveleagues taking part and each league should get three teams, Europe will agree with them.

If it is suggested there are playoff between League One and Super Rugby for six of the eight places then they don’t need to pay Super Rugby teams to play them.
Currently League One is 12 teams and plays 16 rounds. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the moment League One teams feel they will earn more playing a longer season they will do it and leave Super Rugby and its Unions cut off from all that easy money.

Either Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby work together the tie Japan into a Pacific Cup like the Champions League and grow a competition together or they will be eaten separately.

New Zealand constantly replacing games that were played in New Zealand for games in Japan or the Super Round are not bringing in new fans for them. Going to Japan and growing rugby there is feeding the people who will happily have all the best Super Rugby players in Japan.

Currently Super Rugby still holds the upper hand over Japan but with the Nations League and four more years of growth in Japanese rugby it might be a lot harder to get a good deal.

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