Sunwolves players celebrate their victory over the Bulls during the Singapore Super Rugby tournament in Singapore on June 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

The Japan-based Sunwolves team will be cut from the Super Rugby competition in 2021 in a move seen as a major setback for the sport in Japan, where the game’s popularity had been steadily growing.

Rugby in Japan received a huge boost four years ago when the country’s national team pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the game by defeating South Africa at the World Cup in England.

That unexpected success generated a new generation of Japanese fans who looked forward to 2019, when rugby’s premier tournament is hosted by the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time.

After Japan’s sensational win over South Africa at the last World Cup, the country’s rugby management recognized that one elite-level competition every four years was not enough to raise standards. So in 2016, Japan entered a team in the annual Super Rugby competition.

The Sunwolves, as they were known, joined 17 other clubs in the annual Southern Hemisphere competition run by SANZAAR – South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby.

Japan’s inclusion in the Super Rugby competition produced a number of benefits. Firstly, it provided local players with regular competition against some of the world’s best teams. Secondly, it helped grow the game not only in Japan, but in Asia in general, as the Sunwolves did not only play in Tokyo, but also had games every year in Singapore.

Red carded

Last week’s decision to exclude the Japanese team came as a shock to many. SANZAAR ditched the Sunwolves and from 2021 will revert to a more manageable round-robin format featuring only Argentinian, Australian, New Zealand and South African sides as part of a new broadcasting deal.

Some reports suggested the Sunwolves were ousted because of opposition from South Africa and their broadcasting partner. However, the withdrawal of financial support for the Sunwolves from the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) was also a factor.

“The decision to further consolidate the competition format to a 14-team round robin was not taken lightly,” said SANZAAR chief executive Andy Marinos. “It has involved some detailed analysis and a thorough review of the current and future rugby landscape, tournament costs, commercial and broadcast considerations and player welfare in line with our strategic plan.”

The Sunwolves’ results had been poor. The team won only eight of 40 games, but they did appear to be improving. In their first season in 2016, the Sunwolves finished last, winning only one game against Argentina’s Jaguars, another newcomer to the competition.

The Japanese team won two games in the following season and had three victories in 2018, the last full season. In 2019, the squad was looking more competitive and recently won their first away game in New Zealand. Excitement started to build for the upcoming World Cup.

SANZAAR asked the Sunwolves to pay one billion yen (US$9 million) a year to participate – a fee no other team had to pay – which the JRFU said it was unable to do. “An agreement for a new contract after 2021 could not be reached due to the newly proposed financial conditions, which was difficult to agree on,” the JRFU said, adding that paying this amount would impact on its other activities and responsibilities.

A blow to Japan …

Opinions varied on whether it was the right decision to axe a team that had not delivered the commercial boost the sport had hoped for, and the timing looked abysmal. Japan was in shock.

“It is clear that this is going to cause quite a lot of damage,” said Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase. “It’s obvious we had a responsibility to expand rugby in Asia. We have tried to do that and to an extent, I believe we achieved that aim – but in pure economic terms, the reality is not that simple.”

Many in Tokyo were critical of SANZAAR, according to Shintaro Kano, a sports writer for major Japanese dailies. “Surprise is a fair description, but I think there was also a sense of betrayal as well, in that SANZAAR put forth an offer Japan all but had to refuse,” Kano told Asia Times. “Equally, though, if Japan was surprised … it says a lot about how the Japanese union and SANZAAR were never on the same wavelength.”

Kano said the Sunwolves had been growing in strength and the benefits were starting to show. “We’ll never know because what should have been a long-term commitment has been pulled before anything really got off the ground,” he said. “It’s a lose-lose situation that will not benefit anyone.”

To increase its talent pool, Japan will now have to focus on its own league, the Top League, which features eight professional teams. This means the more than 15,000 fans who watched the Sunwolves will still have somewhere to go to watch rugby.

“There’s talk of a breakaway type of league being launched, but who knows,” Kano said. “Super Rugby aside, there’s plenty Japan can fix in the Top League to make it a more attractive product, so it should start there.”

A blow to Asia

It is not just Japan’s rugby players and fans who will suffer from the Sunwolves dropping out of Super Rugby. The country is Asia’s foremost rugby powerhouse and a strong Team Japan could help lift standards elsewhere.

The SANZAAR decision raises a big question about the game’s regional future. If Japan can’t stay in an elite competition even when it is about to host a World Cup, what hope is there for the rest of Asia?

Outside Japan, the decision will be most keenly felt in Singapore, the Sunwolves’ second home. “It was good to have high-level rugby played in Singapore,” Douglas Danapal, the head of Communications at the Singapore Rugby Union, told Asia Times. “It is a shame that the SunWolves will be leaving Super Rugby.”

Singapore’s rugby organizers may now shift their focus away from Asia. “We will be on the lookout to host other exhibition matches and Test matches similar to Italy against Scotland and will look to Northern Hemisphere club teams to play here,” Danapal said.

But there is still the World Cup in Japan. And organizers remain upbeat.

“We feel like this will be the most impactful Rugby World Cup we’ve ever had,” tournament director Alan Gilpin said recently, adding that 4.5 million of the seven million ticket applications had come from Japan.

“There are a couple of hundred thousand kids playing rugby now in Japan that weren’t there a year ago, let alone five years ago. We are somewhere new. The opportunity is to leave a bigger legacy in this World Cup than we’ve ever done before.”

For Kano, there are no issues with the September 20 to November 2 tournament. “World Cup preparations shouldn’t be affected, they will be fine,” he said. “Post-World Cup is another matter, however.”

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