WELLINGTON, New Zealand ( Associated Press) – Leading figures in Japan’s new professional rugby competition are marching ahead with confidence after an inaugural season that captivated fans and confirmed the league’s allure for the world’s leading players.
Japan Rugby League One faced early headwinds as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of matches and limited attendance.
But as the season progressed and the impact of the pandemic subsided, crowd levels rose, cheering organizers and the standard of rugby exceeded the league’s predecessor, the Japan Top League, which was Japan’s premier professional league for 20 years. There was competition.
The inaugural session served a major objective of providing the foundation for future development. The league is strongly supported by some of Japan’s largest corporations and foreign players participating in the first edition of the JRLO were pleased with the standard of rugby it produced.
Future goals include building rugby’s fan base in Japan, working towards expanding the league to other Asian markets, and eventually developing cross-border competitions with Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
Chairman Genichi Tamatsuka and Chief Operating Officer Hireme Shoji are both ambitious for the league to become one of the best in the world and see room for improvement in a less interrupted second season than the first.
“We had a tough start in the first season obviously because of COVID,” Tamatsuka said. “We were expecting 40,000 or more spectators for the first match on January 7, but it was canceled because some Panasonic players were infected with COVID.
“After that we canceled many games and it was obviously a very rough start and every team had to manage COVID. But time passes. Maybe after March, April, in another part of the season, we could really manage those tough conditions and we reached the finals.
“We still have many areas to improve, but overall we did well in a difficult COVID situation.”
Tamatsuka said the standard of foreign players in their first season in the league – among them New Zealander Damien Mackenzie, England’s George Krause and Australia’s Michael Hooper and Samu Kerewi – boosted the league.
“We had about 60 (overseas) players for 24 teams,” he said. “The average number of (Test) caps for each player is 30 which means we have a total of 1,800 cap-holders playing Division One, Division Two, Division Three. Their presence clearly raised the level of games. Raised and made an impact on Japanese players as well.
Shoji stated that the aim of the JRLO was to transfer Japan Rugby Union rights to teams that could now focus on profit and reinvestment in the league.
“It’s leading to better team conditions and better teams,” he said. “We are confident that such a strong team will lead to a strong Japan team and the league aims to enhance the level of play and the financial position of the teams as well.
“On this purpose, the level of the game has been high with many new players coming from overseas.”
Building a wide fan base in Japan is a challenge. Shoji said JRLO plans to use both bottom-up and top-down strategies to increase the number of rugby in Japan. Both the development of digital technology to better interact with fans and the ability of clubs to market rugby in their regions will be critical.
“The Japanese rugby fan is usually an old man,” he said. “However, women and children, families and stadiums come together, depending on the team’s effort to attract new fans.
“There are a lot of areas for improvement and we are moving forward based on input from the media and fans. First, League One’s brand still isn’t penetrating well among the broader consumer or fanbase candidates. ,
Shoji said the JRLO is already in discussions with New Zealand and Australia about cross-border competition among others. The existing calendar and scheduling questions will have to be addressed first.
“Tamatsuka-san is always referring to the need and potential of this league to expand into the Asian market or beyond,” he said.
Tamatsuka said, “We will have to discuss with New Zealand and Australia their seasons and the structure of the calendar with our seasons.
“If we have an opportunity like this then when should be the first year and when is the best time and how should we manage for that? We could send two teams and they could send two teams or four teams.
“We will probably have to consider several initiatives and we will have to clarify many things. However, we would like to discuss with them several arrangements for cross-border competition. It’s very clear.”
More Associated Press Rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports