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New Japanese club competition planned post-World Cup, test stars set to be targeted

Plans for a new domestic league in Japan following on from this year’s World Cup could force current Super Rugby and Southern Hemisphere test stars to choose between the international arena and the riches on offer in the Far East.

Japanese Rugby Football Union vice-president Katsuyuki Kiyomiya told Japanese financial newspaper Nikkei that he wants to ride the coattails of the Brave Blossoms’ unprecedented success at their home World Cup by forming a new 12-team club competition in the second half of 2021.

Interest in rugby has surged in Japan throughout the tournament as Jamie Joseph’s side remains unbeaten after having dispatched the likes of Ireland and Scotland to finish atop of Pool A and qualify for the knockout stages for the first time in their history.

“This World Cup is a big event Japanese rugby has not experienced before and we are tested on how we take the excitement and enthusiasm created by this event to the next level,” Kiyomiya said.

“Now is the chance to start a professional league, which enables Japanese spectators to see star players in the World Cup 2019 playing at first hand, right in front of their eyes.”

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Kiyomiya said he will hold a news conference in Tokyo on November 18, where he will lay out plans for the new competition, which would launch in August 2021.

The league would run through to January, thus avoiding a schedule clash with SANZAAR’s Super Rugby, which is set to run from January to July next year.

That would allow for the Southern Hemisphere’s premier players to be recruited for the new Japanese club competition during the Super Rugby off-season.

Having such star power in the new competition would help tee up a significant broadcasting deal with streaming giant DAZN, which already holds the rights to Japan’s J-League football competition.

Kiyomiya told Nikkei the league would aim to generate annual revenue of about 50 billion yen (US$460m/€420m) from the sale of media and sponsorship rights, which would be enough “to be on a par with the European market”.

Japan already has a club competition in place in the form of the Top League, but the tournament – whose 16 participating teams are mostly owned by large corporations as per Japan’s industry-led sports model – is smaller in scale than the league proposed by Kiyomiya and doesn’t generate a profit.

News of this new league will add another layer of scrutiny for unions such as New Zealand Rugby, Rugby Australia and South Africa Rugby.

All three unions have struggled to retain their key players in recent years as the lure of the yen, pound and Euro has proven to be more and more difficult for the sport’s marquee players to turn down in place of a test career.

Both New Zealand and Australia have strict policies regarding the selection of overseas-based players, although those laws have been loosened somewhat over the past few years to help alleviate the growing pressure surrounding the retention of those nations’ star players.

South Africa, meanwhile, have an open selection policy after having abolished their 30-cap threshold for overseas-based players last year to allow national selectors to pick any South African player from around the world.

The move came as a result of the diminishing strength of the rand compared to that of the British, European and Japanese currencies.

Should the proposed competition replace the existing Top League in the Japanese rugby calendar, players anticipating heading to Japan to take up lucrative short-term contracts – as has been commonplace in years gone by – will have to make a choice about where their priorities lie between club and country.

With the competition expected to run between August and January, players from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa would be unavailable for most of the international season, which – for Southern Hemisphere nations – will take place between July and November from next year onwards.

Many high-profile players have signed deals to play in the Top League next year and beyond, but the proposition of the new league coming to fruition brings with it a sense of uncertainty.

For example, Beauden Barrett’s four-year deal with the Blues includes an option to take up a short-term contract in Japan following the 2020 Super Rugby season, but when the deal was struck, it was assumed the two-time World Player of the Year would miss a Blues campaign to play in the Top League, which will clash with Super Rugby next year.

If the new Japanese competition takes the place of the Top League at the backend of 2021, then it would instead be the majority of the All Blacks’ campaign that Barrett would miss out on rather than a season of Super Rugby.

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That might be something that sits uncomfortably for both the 80-test veteran and NZR.

Fellow All Blacks stars Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock have already penned long-term agreements with NZR which will allow them to take up short-term deals in Japan over the next two years.

Whitelock will be unaffected by the admission of the new league, as he will only sit out next year’s Super Rugby to play for the Panasonic Wild Knights before returning to New Zealand in July to resume his duties with the national side and the Crusaders.

Retallick, however, is set to be based in Japan with the Kobe Steelers until midway through 2021, and will be unavailable for the All Blacks and Chiefs until then.

That was based on the understanding that 2021 Japanese club season would take place in the first half of the year, though, and the induction of the new competition could bring with it complications regarding Retallick’s stay in Japan.

“When we started talking to Brodie the expectation was that he’d play two competitions for Kobe and they would fall in a 12-13 month period,” NZR head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum told Stuff in June.

In securing the services of Retallick through to the 2023 World Cup, NZR had to provide plenty of flexibility in allowing the 28-year-old to head offshore, with Lendrum admitting that the deal will keep the 2014 World Player of the Year away from the Chiefs for longer than the two-time Super Rugby champions would have liked.

It seems as though the JRFU want to avoid a scheduling conflict with Super Rugby as they aim to attract SANZAAR’s star men into their new league, but that will come at a cost for the Southern Hemisphere’s national sides, whose key players may have to put their test careers on hold if they want to pursue the financial riches that comes with domestic rugby in Japan.

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New Japanese club competition planned post-World Cup, test stars set to be targeted