Japan Rugby Finals and the Ever Present Chequebook In Sport

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Suntory Sungoliath v Toshiba Brave Lupus - Top League Playoff Final
TOKYO, JAPAN - JANUARY 27: Shinya Makabe of Suntory celebrates with the cup and his team-mates after victory in the Japan Rugby Top League playoff final match between Suntory Sungoliath and Toshiba Brave Lupus at Prince Chichibu Stadium on January 27, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

While Southern Hemisphere rugby fans wait patiently for their annual Super Rugby competition to begin, Japan Rugby Finals are occurring in the Asian nation. With some leading International players in the Japan Rugby Top League, it has several implications on the domestic rugby scene. Talent being primary, as some has been delayed from joining many of the three Southern nations franchises–and all happening with the Ever Present Chequebook hovering over the sport.

The sport in Japan is seen as somewhat of a white collar escape. The factory-backed teams that many International fans are aware of, dominate the league. Toshiba, Ricoh and Canon are all core sides of the top league. Each provided with huge resources to bring pride and Meiyo to their respective clubs. Made up of a core of talented local Japanese players, like Keisuke Sawaki, they are joined by stars of today; David Pocock among them.

Respect is a big part of the rugby culture in Asia, as is competition. And with Japanese Rugby having much success lately; especially since their fantastic achievement over the Springboks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the team and national teams performances have benefited undoubtedly from the influx of Western players and the skills being transferred into the local game.

Japan Rugby Finals

There have been some standout performances in the league. Toyota and Kobe had early starts to the season, but after 14 rounds, the cream has risen to the top.

Suntory have progressed through the year unbeaten to date, which puts them in command of the finals placing. They will be rewarded with a home semi final while it seems Yamaha and Panasonic cannot be separated–both teams sitting on 57 points–with one regular season game left to play before the finals draw can be announced.

Japan Rugby Top League Finals Draw

The top three sides in the league advance to the season ending All Japan Championship along with the winner of the university competition. With one round left to play, those sides are in unassailable places.

The teams that have qualified for the Japan Rugby Finals for 2016/17 are: Suntory Sungloiath, Yamaha Jubilo and the Panasonic Wild Knights

After the final games, Suntory will formally be crowned the top placed side, taking the 17th League title with performances like this weekend; 48-0.

After the regular season is over, players who are contracted for Super Rugby will each head to their respective franchise, to prepare for the 2017 Super Rugby season. Of the top three teams, those players will stay concentrated on Japan rugby finals.

Overseas Stars Availability Affected

Richard Buckman (Highlanders),  Joe Wheeler (Highlanders), Hendrik Tui (Reds), George Smith (Reds) and Stephen Donald (Chiefs) will all be unavailable due to their sides appearing in the finals. And while that may not have been as many as in previous seasons, those from finals destined teams may not be the only men affected.

The Japan Rugby Finals now frees up players from those teams who have not qualified–provided they return fit. The relentless International calendar may have seen some players head directly from 2016 competitions, or the November Internationals straight into the Japan Rugby Top League. So on their return to South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, their health must be confirmed.

This means the likes of Michael Leitch, Liam Messam and Tim Nanai-Williams (Chiefs), Willie le Roux, Lionel Mapoe, Jaco Kriel and Elton Jantjies (Lions), Scott Higginbottom (Reds), Patrick Osborne (Highlanders), Jacques Potgieter (Bulls) and Digby Ioane (Crusaders) will be free from next weekend. So one can imagine that once their commitments with their club are completed, some will go directly back to their Super team.

Note: David Pocock is on sabbatical for 2017.

Medical Assessments the First Stop For Returning Players

And at that stage, franchise medical staff can conclude if they have arrived back fully fit, or if they need any medical care. Reports in previous years have included minor injuries right up to reconstructive surgery–restricting players availability. So every affected franchise CEO will be hoping for the best.

They will be hoping that they don’t endure a situation like the Bulls had to in 2016. Star first-five Handré Pollard returned from his term playing for NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes. On his first day back with the Bulls, a freak accident put ruin to his season. “Handre was easing back into training, his first phase of final rehab before being cleared to play and was busy with a passing drill when he injured himself,” coach Nollis Marais said in a statement.

While not a direct correlation to his involvement in Japan Rugby per-say, the fact he was not a part of the standardized pre-season program [due to a demanding role in an offshore league] would have been a contributing factor. The ever present offshore financial rewards in sport; applicable to International cricket/IPL too, that might invariably alter any franchises forward planning.

The Ever Present Chequebook

A consequence of the cost of those highly desirable, and such well resourced professional rugby league, is not only the late arrival of star players like Elton Jantjies, but also the continual uprooting of players from Super Rugby/Mitre 10 Cup/Currie Cup ranks.

That might be to the riches of Asia, another code [rugby league/NFL] or even sabbatical like Pocock, and Dan Carter before him. The ‘chequebook’ arsenal is similar to European and French rugby demand. For years, Japan has continually removed quality players to the chagrin of NZ rugby. In the case of Andrew Horrell (below) his return was spoken of, but the Chiefs are without him for 2017.

An issue for over two decades, as the rewards of the Yen, proximity and attraction of playing in Asia has taken many players out of the local, domestic competition. Some attempt to serve ‘both masters’ like Liam Messam. Wanting to perform over the entire Japan Rugby Finals series (like he did in 2015) and then return to Super Rugby, he did not have the some impact as in 2012. Some even saw that as quite a selfish motivation. While technically, it can be done, the risk to player and franchise are always present.

At times, the unforeseen loss can see a once promising player taken from the ranks of a franchise too soon. Many before even establishing a domestic, or International record sometimes, the player only see’s the short term gains. And while a few can return (and successfully perform, like Jerome Kaino) they risk losing places to other rising stars–as in the case of Messam to Liam Squire.

Fantastic Money In Japan Rugby Finals

The money can be fantastic, yes. The experience too can be a wonderful introduction to a new culture for player and family. Many of the organizations are run very professionally, and truly respectful of the game and it’s place in culture. Japan has long held traditions, high standards, often promotes player education and of course a massive audience who can be adoring.

So for the three League teams; Suntory, Yamaha and Panasonic, preparing for the knockout stages, the rewards will get even richer. In reaching the All Japan Championship, this elite competition is where contract bonus’s will pay huge incentives when in possibly reaching the final. And more, to any players that help take away the supreme title.

Glory, in Japanese business and culture, brings lucrative benefits. The company that can put their name beside a sporting crowd is the antithesis of successful marketing. In Japanese society more, it is an honour that can follow any player through their career and lives.

TOKYO, JAPAN – MARCH 09: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Panasonic Wild Knights players celebrate winning the 51st All Japan Rugby National Championship final match between Toshiba Brave Lupus and Panasonic Wild Knights at the National Stadium on March 9, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

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Japan Rugby Finals To Be Decided

That is yet to be decided, but over the next three weeks, Japan rugby finals are at the forefront of the sports mind. That is because it is prior to the start of Super Rugby, so it will enjoy huge popularity in Asia and across the sports news; as well, with many franchise CEO’s monitoring player health.

Provided the weather is agreeable–with some venues being played in sub-zero temperatures–the sacrifice on the field, will be rewarded in recognition and in riches. For these select players, they will go directly from Japan Rugby Top League straight into Super Rugby. If they arrive fit and ready, that will surely be a huge test of their athleticism and rugby attitude.

Good luck to all players and teams.

“Main photo credit”

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