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Win over Super Rugby powerhouse 'a significant moment for rugby in Japan'

By Ian Cameron
Lachlan Boshier of Saitama Wild Knights and Damian McKenzie of Chiefs talk after the preseason match between Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Chiefs at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium on February 4, 2024 in Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

The inaugural Cross-Border Rugby series – a groundbreaking collaboration between Japan Rugby League One and New Zealand’s DHL Super Rugby teams – has been hailed as a success.

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Japan Rugby League One chairman Genichi Tamatsuka hailed the event as a promising start. He highlighted the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights’ historic 38-14 win over the Gallagher Chiefs as marking a significant achievement for the sport in Japan.

“It was a promising start to the concept, with four entertaining games, which featured plenty of running rugby and a healthy return of tries,” Mr Tamatsuka said. “There were good results for both countries, which added to the competitive element of the series.”

Across four matches, teams showcased an exciting brand of rugby, scoring thirty-seven tries and totalling 246 points. Despite the challenge of scheduling, Tamatsuka is optimistic about the future, aiming to establish a formal series.

“The effort of the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights in beating the Chiefs was not just a proud achievement for the club, it was also a significant moment for rugby in Japan as a whole,” said Tamatsuka. “It was a statement that Japanese club teams can compete with their international counterparts, a further sign of the growth in the playing level that we are achieving through Japan Rugby League One.”

The series – although faced with limited fan attendance – has laid a foundation for growth in player strength, fan engagement, and commercial opportunities. With the largest crowd reaching 13,278 spectators, officials recognize the need for improved marketing and operational strategies. As the competition resumes, excitement builds for the final in Tokyo, reflecting the series’ potential to enhance rugby’s popularity and competitive spirit in Japan.

“That [growth] is our ultimate objective, but everything must start somewhere. We now have something to build on,” Tamatsuka claimed. “The potential for growth, whether it be in the strength of player that the team’s field, expansion of the marketing and fan engagement, increased commercial opportunities that are associated with the product, the window of the season in which the games are played; all are things that can and will be looked at and advanced as we develop this relationship.”

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The relatively modest turnouts were blamed on the short turnaround time for the tournament.

“The simple reality is that there wasn’t a lot of time to put it together,” Japan Rugby League One chief operating officer Hajime Shoji explained. “But, as the chairman has said, it is a starting point. We now have a base of understanding to work from, both as a league, but also for the clubs.

“They now know what to expect when they earn the right to participate. When we stage a review of the series, I am sure there will be plenty of things operationally we find that can be improved.

“Japan Rugby League One is built on traditional club competitions that have been in place for a long time, they are rivalries that the fans have invested in, want to be a part of. Given the feedback from fans after the matches, I believe the Cross-Border Rugby, once developed to an improved format, will soon get more popularity among the fans in Japan.”

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