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The Rugby Championship needs Japan and Fiji

By Ben Smith
New Zealand players line up for the national anthem prior to the international test match between Japan and New Zealand All Blacks at National Stadium on October 29, 2022 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

NZR CEO Mark Robinson revealed that talks are underway for Fiji and Japan to enter an annual Six Nations-style tournament in 2026 to occur every two years.

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This move would be a winner but it should be every year as part of an expanded Rugby Championship.

Frankly, the flagship Rugby Championship competition already lacks unpredictability and expansion with Fiji and Japan adds a missing element to shake-up the tournament which is regarded as an inferior product to the Six Nations.

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We have evidence to suggest that the Brave Blossoms are ready after watching their progress over the last five years.

In 2018 the All Blacks sent the ‘A’ team to Europe to prepare for the end of year tour while the ‘B’ squad played against Japan in Tokyo.

The second string All Black side won handily by 69-31.

Fast forward five years and the All Blacks squeezed a tight 38-31 win that was only decided in the final moments.

This was an experimental All Black side but featured front line starters Samisoni Taukei’aho, Brodie Retallick, Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane, Richie Mo’unga, and Caleb Clarke.

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Japan has struggled to play quality Test fixtures frequently since 2020 but was still able to push a much stronger side than the one they faced in 2018. The gap was much closer than it once was.

Players line up prior to the international test match between Japan and New Zealand All Blacks at National Stadium on October 29, 2022 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

Regardless, whether Japan can regularly defeat the All Blacks should not be the pre-requisite for approval into the Championship.

Argentina took 35 years and 30 Tests to register their first win over New Zealand, and it took nine years of competition in the Rugby Championship to do so.

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The development of Los Pumas has been on-going and despite one of their best showings in 2022, they still finished last.

Japan’s 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign showed how formidable they can be against tier one competition at home.

They knocked off Ireland, who were ranked number one in the world earlier that year, and Scotland in pool play to qualify for the quarter-finals.

We have seen Japan already shock South Africa with the ‘Brighton miracle’ during the 2015 edition.

Annual competition against New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and Fiji in an expanded Championship is not beyond the capabilities of Japan.

They are capable of winning two of those fixtures every year, and possibly four of them, if they have a superb year.

Japan’s style will trouble the Springboks, challenge the All Blacks and no doubt be an interesting proposition for Australia and Argentina.

The All Blacks have won every full edition of the tournament since its inception in 2012.

Australia and South Africa have just one title each from truncated versions in World Cup years and duked it out for second and third most years.

Argentina have struggled, taking all but one wooden spoon and hold a record of seven wins, one draw and 46 losses after over a decade of involvement.

Elevating both Japan and Fiji into the tournament immediately brings two opponents to shake off the staleness.

While New Zealand might still win the title more often than not, Argentina will no longer pick up the spoon every year.

Japan and Fiji can benefit from having each other included at the same time, unlike Argentina who just had to suffer beatings for the most part.

As the Fijian Drua have proven, when afforded the opportunity to play at home and the time to grow, Fijian rugby can succeed.

The Drua have stunned the New Zealand Super Rugby teams in Fiji in just their second year of competition.

The Kiwi teams have vastly more resources and far more advanced development systems in place but the Drua have overcome that.

Fiji has always had what it takes to knock off any tier one opponent at home, and given the chance to, they will do so.

The Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks will all lose to Fiji at home sooner than predicted, which will be great for the competition, and great for Test rugby.

The fever pitch atmosphere in Fiji brings a made-for-TV product that makes the road trip to Suva highly compelling, refreshing the Rugby Championship as a spectacle.

Considering the style of rugby the Fijians play and the athletes they produce, it is a no-brainer to have them included from an entertainment perspective.

If Fiji can field a team with European based-stars like Semi Radradra and captain Waisea Nayacalevu, the commercial value of the Rugby Championship increases.

Although the Fijians might not bring a big TV rights market to the table like Japan, the SANZAAR partners all get a better TV-product as a result of their inclusion.

How many rugby fans wouldn’t be interested in a full-strength Fijian side traveling to Ellis Park to play the Springboks? Or hosting the All Blacks at home in Suva in front a delirious home fans?

A six-team Rugby Championship with Japan and Fiji would reduce the number of current fixtures per team, playing everyone just once on an alternating home-and-away basis annually.

But those five Tests each would be a perfect balance of supply and demand, maintaining scarcity and holding anticipation.

The All Blacks could still play the Wallabies twice with one fixture outside the Rugby Championship for the Bledisloe Cup, as is the case now, but move to playing the Springboks and Argentina just once a year.

It would arguably be a better entertainment product from the get-go, with three tests every weekend over five rounds across the most culturally diverse locations in rugby.

There is no doubt that Japan and Fiji would sell out every home Test. They would already bring competitive teams. And when playing at home, they will take down the giants in time as Argentina have.

The longer term aim would be to have the USA as the seventh competing member of the Rugby Championship, capturing one of the biggest sporting markets in the world.

A revamped Rugby Championship with Japan and Fiji is a winner. The current tournament has the best rugby nations involved but fails to be the best rugby competition.

That could change with Japan and Fiji who bring different but exciting playing styles, as well as appealing locations to hold top tier Test rugby.

 

 

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18 Comments
S
Sinenhlanhla 125 days ago

Finally really for all the talk about rugby being inclusive they're doing a very bad job at botching it, including Japan and Fiji will freshin’ up the Rugby Championship and entertainment value maybe even create a second tier competition featuring the best of the rest(Uruguay,Brazil,Chile,Samoa,Tonga, Namibia and Zimbabwe) really grow the game

J
Jmann 352 days ago

I'm not sure that playing in 35degrees heat and 90% humidity in the Japanese summer is going to make for a great spectacle. And I say that from the experience of having been a rugby player in japan for 9 season.

But the money from the packed stadiums may offset it a wee bit.

A
Allan 427 days ago

As usual RP up America's a@#%hole. What is it with RP and its obsession with America? Does RP actually believe that the yanks are going to suddenly start watching rugby en masses? Based on what? Even football (sorry....soccer) which is the most popular sport in the world has struggled in the US to gain mass popularity. And it is still far behind their own sports (baseball, Basketball etc....) in popularity despite decades and billions of US Dollars spent on it. And who in their mind believes that the yanks will tune in to watch a sport where they are likely to get royally spanked by the All Blacks and Springboks on a regular basis? They only like to win and dominate. Certainly their egos won't allow them to enjoy being beaten by their "inferiors". Presumably why they play call their domestic leagues "the world series", and the winners of the NFL "World champions" lmao despite playing not a single other country. The idea that Americans are going to start mass watching rugby over their own NFL is mass level delusion by both the IRB and Rugby Pass. Not surprising given both are based in the UK.

Long term plan to include the US hahahaha....what?...in 30 years? Good grief man.....with all their money and resources they couldn't even qualify for France 23. And their qualifying group is weak. They got beaten by Chile. That rugby power house. A country with significantly less resources, money, and players than the US. They are even ranked lower.

The simple FACT is that American rugby remains terrible. They have not achieved any significant achievement or milestone compared to say Japan. They have not ever beaten a tier 1 nation in a competitive tournament match, and their World Cup record is atrocious. Rugby Pass may as well be talking about adding Namibia to the Rugby Championship in the long term.

K
Kane 427 days ago

Thanks for this Ben,
In amongst the many good points you make you touched on one thing that most of the major unions seem to have forgotten “those five Tests each would be a perfect balance of supply and demand, maintaining scarcity and holding anticipation.”
For too long the hats in to room have espoused bigger is better, more is better. They kept adding and adding to Super Rugby until it collapsed.
Test matches are special. We all have special memories of that one match with our mate or mum or dad, or when we took our daughter or son, the atmosphere was electric and we won and celebrated! Or lost, and bought some deserving fan a beer while congratulating them.
If it goes this way - I’m in.

S
Shaylen 428 days ago

SA should just leave the rugby championship for the six nations. Its time for SA to complete its move up north. Fiji and Japan are small commercial markets with still relatively weak teams. Imagine Japan playing against the All Blacks in Auckland. It will be a blow out. To think that Ben Smith feels that the only way to achieve progress in the rugby championship is to cut down the games between the big 3 and go for an expanded tourney with Japan and Fiji is ludicrous. SA really needs to leave behind the Aussies and the All Blacks to island hop their way to an isolated pacific competition. Right now as it stands Aus and NZ do not value the Springboks at all and the SA brand is starting to grow in Europe with strong performances from its franchises. So the next logical step is to join the six nations.

C
Caleb 428 days ago

Why the NZRU isnt making this their top priority is beyond me. Both Fiji & Japan are in similar time zones making the games more appealing for evening viewers, and people want to watch those teams play when their is something on the line.

They also always complain about the money on offer in Japan, so why not go and get a share of it. You could sign a huge broadcasting deal and use that money to actually keep players in NZ and develop the Pacific teams.

Seems like a much better plan than swapping equity in NZR every few years for a cash dump.

S
Steve 428 days ago

I think this can only be good for the development of the game. I would go further and suggest that when teams do their summer/end of season tours they include developing nations in the tour, eg England go to New Zealand why not play a test against Fiji, Samoa or Tonga? Or in South America play Uruguay or another developing team down there? Expose them to top level rugby instead of the big teams worrying about filling their pockets playing each other. Rugby would benefit from all nations being stronger and creating a real buzz around the world.

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N
Nickers 1 hours ago
'One of the poorest All Blacks performances I've seen in a long time'

Extreme hyperbole from Biggar. NZ have played far, far worse than that. The 20/21 team was by far the worst of the professional era. Losses to Argentina, shambolic game against Japan and hapless NH tour of 2021. But even that dreadful team were able to put 50 points on Wales and beat them by 38. Much easier to “tear them to pieces” from the commentary box apparently. Ignored by virtually everyone is how good the ABs defence was. That is why England didn’t win, they simply could not score enough points against that defence. The ABs attack was very average, but their defence was world class and that’s what won them the game. Any Wales team that Biggar has ever played for would have found themselves in the same situation and would definitely not have scored tries from those cross kicks. That ABs team beats Biggar’s best Wales team 31 - 13. England’s attack was as good as it was allowed to be by a superior defence. Hats off to Hansen, he has picked up where MacLeod finally got the ABs to last year and not missed a step. England’s attack will be a big worry for Borthwick. They have not established a reliable, repeatable way to break teams down and score points. They were held to some very low scores by average teams in the 6N, and again here didn’t cross 20 points on either occasion. If I was an England fan I would be crying out for a new attack coach. Borthwick would do well to cast his net now, a poor home winter with a faltering attack will start the calls for his job.

13 Go to comments
T
Thomas 1 hours ago
'Champions get up when they can't': Matt Williams weighs in on Ireland's win over Boks

While both teams have their particular positives, I think neither team should rest on their laurels. South Africa managed to tie a series against an uncomfortable opponent, that has had their numbers for a couple of years, while trial-running a completely new attack system, that still doesn’t work properly. But one aspect of “it doesn’t work yet” is a transition from attack to defense in broken play, as the Boks leaked three tries in two matches this way, and lost the second match as a result. Ireland avoided a series loss in a hostile environment, and in spite of many key player injuries, while managing to significantly improve and tighten their defense in game 2 (which demonstrates the breadth of their squad as well as their ability to adjust and recalibrate). At the same time, their own attack hadn’t amounted to much, either (save from exploiting the gaps in the Boks’ new system, gaps that won’t be there anymore in a few months’ time), and they haven’t found an answer to the Boks scrum, which almost costed them the 2nd match, if it hadn’t been for pretty much unrepeatable Frawley heroics. In the end, there isn’t much that separates those two sides … which is exactly what we knew before the series already. Back to the drawing board for both teams, the work only just begins for two teams with the highest ambition. Start of a cycle alright.

16 Go to comments
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