In a country where baseball is the most popular sport, people often ask the question, “Oh, they play rugby in Japan?” Yes, yes they do. Although it’s not the most popular sport in Japan, each team has a very strong and passionate fan base and the players are driven by a love for the game.
Established by the Japan Rugby Football Union in 2003, the purpose of Top League was to increase the popularity of the sport in Japan. Initially starting with 12 teams the league expanded in the 2006-07 season when another two teams were introduced.
Established in 2003, this prestigious competition sees the top 14 teams in Japan battle it out to become number one and is the most prestigious amongt the different leagues in Japan. Unlike Super Rugby, the teams in the competition vary from year to year. This gives teams from lower leagues the opportunity to achieve their ultimate goal of getting into Top League. The top team from each of these leagues that is victorious in a play-off with Top League’s 11th and 12th placed teams replaces the 13th and 14th placed teams who are automatically relegated from Top League.
The teams currently in Top League are (in rank order):
1. Suntory Sun Goliath (Tokyo)
2. Panasonic Wild Knights (Gunma)
3. Toshiba Brave Lupus (Tokyo)
4. NEC Green Rockets (Chiba)
5. Kobelco Steelers (Kobe)
6. Yamaha Jubilo (Shizuoka)
7. Kintetsu Liners (Osaka)
8. Ricoh Black Rams (Tokyo)
9. Toyota Verblitz (Aichi)
10. NTT Communications Shining Arcs (Chiba)
11. Fukuoka Sanix Blues (Fukuoka)
12. NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes (Tokyo)
13. Honda Heat (Suzuka)
14. Coca Cola West Sparks (Fukuoka)
Here is the history of Top League premiership titles:
2003-04: Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers
2004-05: Toshiba Brave Lupus
2005-06: Toshiba Brave Lupus
2006-07: Toshiba Brave Lupus
2007-08: Suntory Sungoliath
2008-09: Toshiba Brave Lupus
2009-10: Toshiba Brave Lupus
2010-11: Sanyo Wild Knights
Although it is difficult to gain a spot in Top League, it is even more difficult to retain that spot. Most teams in Top League are semi-professional, meaning that they are full-time employees for the company that they play for. As a result, being able to fully perform at training may be difficult after working an eight hour day. However, the passion and drive demonstrated by each and every player can be likened to any professional player. Most teams don’t pay their players either so the players are playing for the love of the game which is commendable.
Rugby in Japan attracts many high-profile foreign players. Players hailing from Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada, America, South Africa, Samoa and Fiji have also played in Top League. These players include: George Gregan (Australia), Stephan Larkham (Australia), Toutai Kefu (Australia), Tony Brown (New Zealand), Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand), Reuben Thorne (New Zealand), Semo Setiti (Samoa Captain -2007 World Cup).
My Dad, Adrian Thompson, coached a team that was in Top League for three seasons. Named Kyuden Voltex, this team hailed from Fukuoka (in the south of Japan). The passion and drive that these players had was very admirable and they had a ‘never give up’ attitude that will hopefully help them regain a position in Top League for the 2012-13 season. I asked Dad a few questions about the highs and lows of coaching in Japan.
What was your favourite coaching moment in Japan?
My favourite coaching memory in Japan has to be making Top League.
What was the main difficulty that you faced in your quest to gain a spot in Top League?
We were very much an amateur group of players playing against professional teams.
How detrimental an effect did the relegation back to Kyushu League have on the team? Did they regain confidence?
The detrimental effect is probably a lack of confidence and that many of them are happy to play in a lower division. I don’t know if they’ve regained confidence and I guess that we’ll have to see in the coming weeks.
Money is stereotypically the main drawcard for foreigners to go to Japan and have an involvement with rugby. Do you really think that this is the case all the time?
In most cases it is and from a player’s point of view, it enables them to prolong their careers.
The Kyuden fans have always been so supportive no matter what. How do you think that this helped the team?
I think that the team feels a responsibility to play for the fans because a lot of their fans work for the company (Kyuden, an electric company) as well.
Do you think that Kyuden has the ability to make it into Top League next season?
Yes, I think that it is possible but it may be a struggle for them to stay there.
The Top League Grand Final will be played in early February. Stay tuned for updated rankings within the Top League ladder!