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Mon 20 Jul 2020 | 11:18

REPORT: Japan push for Southern Hemisphere inclusion

REPORT: Japan push for Southern Hemisphere inclusion
Mon 20 Jul 2020 | 11:18
REPORT: Japan push for Southern Hemisphere inclusion
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SPOTLIGHT: As the uncertainty over the Super Rugby competition continues, a Japanese executive has expressed his eagerness for Japan to stay involved in the Southern Hemisphere club game.

The expulsion of the Sunwolves from Super Rugby beyond this year was expected to eradicate Japan from the SANZAAR competition, as the league prepared to revert to a 14-team, round-robin format in 2021.

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced a re-think about how Super Rugby’s future, however, with New Zealand and Australia set to join forces to form a new tournament.

Both countries have created makeshift domestic competitions featuring their respective franchises – and, in Australia’s case, the Western Force – but plans for a cross-border league between the two nations has sparked debate and controversy.

That’s New Zealand Rugby last week revealed plans for an eight-to-10 team competition to take place next year that would comprise of all five Kiwi franchises, a Pasifika team and between two-to-four Australian sides.

NZR said that the Australian teams would be invited to join the league, but a decision on how many sides from Australia would take part would be at the discretion of the Kiwi organisation based on factors including player numbers and welfare and financial strength.

Executives and pundits on the other side of the Tasman Sea, however, have been critical about the fact that there could be as few as two Australian teams in the proposed competition.

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Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan has gone on to describe his organisation’s relationship with their Kiwi counterparts as that of a “master-servant” dynamic, while former RA boss John O’Neill has hit back at former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s claim that NZR doesn’t owe Australia anything.

Current All Blacks boss Ian Foster has also weighed into the debate, as have scribes from New Zealand, Australia and England, but the potential inclusion of Japanese teams is an aspect of the conversation that has seemingly flown under the radar.

However, Japan Rugby Football Union director Yuichiro Fujii is looking capitalise on the re-structure of Super Rugby as part of his task of strengthening the Brave Blossoms ahead of their 2023 World Cup campaign.

Fujii believes that Japan’s top clubs must compete against the best teams in the Southern Hemisphere if the national side is to enjoy the kind of success they found at last year’s World Cup, where they finished as quarter-finalists for the first time ever.

“It will improve the level and value of the domestic league and gain us international experience,” Fujii said, according to Kyodo News.

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Despite their on-field struggles against teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, the addition of the Sunwolves into Super Rugby in 2016 was credited as part of the reason behind Japan’s success at the 2019 World Cup.

Although the Tokyo-based franchise have since dissipated, Fujii is hopeful of exposing the best teams from Japan’s star-studded Top League to the best from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific.

Backed by national coach Jamie Joseph, Fujii will present his plans for Japanese involvement with teams from the Southern Hemisphere to the JRFU.

Kyodo News said a potential format could see the Top League champions and another squad made up of players from around the league – similar to that of the Sunwolves – take part in a new competition.

Fujii said the July international window would need to be moved to autumn – potentially in place of the Rugby Championship, which has been the subject of being rescheduled to March and April – to free up room on the calendar for such a league.

“If it’s held in June and July, it wouldn’t overlap with either the Top League or national team activities,” he said.

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The Top League has proven to be a popular destination for players from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa looking to ply their trade abroad.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season, but new signings for that campaign included Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Malcolm Marx, Samu Kerevi, Damien de Allende, Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano, Duane Vermeulen, Matt Todd, David Pocock, Liam Squire, Albertus ‘Kwagga Smith and Ryan Crotty, to name a few.

Other foreign stars, such as Dan Carter and Matt Giteau, were already playing in Japan’s premier club competition, while members of the successful Japanese World Cup squad feature prominently throughout the league.

All Blacks playmaker and two-time World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett is the latest overseas star to join the Top League ranks, as he will link up with Suntory Sungoliath next year on a six-month sabbatical deal reportedly worth NZ$1.5m.

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