The start of Japanese Top League has been pushed back until February, the organisation have confirmed. The season was set to kick off last weekend (January 16th), but mass outbreaks of Covid-19 among squads in the league have meant the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) have had to reschedule the entire season.

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It was revealed that a total of 68 positive cases were detected in playing squads earlier this week.

The JRFU have now set an ambitious target of February 20th for their first round of games. The Japan Rugby Top League have also announced a new format for the 2021 season, somewhat similar in shape to the Guinness PRO14.

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What is life like for a pro player in Japan?

The new format divides 16 teams into two conferences with a single round-robin tournament for each to determine the standings.

After the completion of the round-robin tournaments, a play-off will be played by 20 teams which include the top 4 teams of the Japan Rugby Top Challenge League 2021 to decide the season’s winner. There will be 75 matches in total, including 56 conference-stage matches.

The postponement of the league means stars like All Blacks standoff Beauden Barrett (Suntory) and England’s George Kruis (Panasonic Wild Knights) and Alex Goode (NEC Green Rockets) will have to wait to take to the field in Japan.

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Last year’s Top League was called to a halt after just six rounds of completed matches. The prospect of another canceled season would be a major body blow for rugby in Japan, a sport that won so many new fans with the staging of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Covid-19 cases has been on the rise in Japan, with a state of emergency announced earlier this month. While Japan did remarkably well to contain the disease in the first year of the pandemic, the new strain of the virus has meant that cases are increasing in the country at a steep rate in 2021, with the death toll in the country running at approximately 100 people a day.

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