The Top League teams with Super Rugby-level firepower - and why they must feature in the 'South Pacific Championship'
While we’re yet to have any official confirmation of the make-up of Super Rugby in 2021, we’ll likely see a 12 team competition involving the 10 Australasian Super Rugby sides plus two new additions in the form of Moana Pasifika and a Fiji XV.
There are still a few organisational and operational matters that will need attending to before anything can be guaranteed, but bringing some more Pacific Island flavour to the competition (potentially titled the South Pacific Championship, if a survey sent out last year is anything to go by) will ideally improve the national island sides’ development plus bring some extra intrigue to the competition.
Perhaps it’s sacrilege to even consider future expansion, especially given that the 2022 competition is yet to be given the green light, but it’s hard to ignore that Japan will still remain an untapped market with incredible potential, thanks to the abolishment of the Sunwolves.
While there won’t be any cross over between Asia and the Pacific next year, Japan will relaunch their own domestic competition to add an extra dollop of professionalism to their leagues and replace the current corporate-led structure. What the means in practical terms is uncertain, however. Currently, the vast majority of Top League athletes are company employees (with ‘rugby player’ being their secondary occupation) and it’s unclear what the changes for next season will mean.
Regardless, there’s a very real chance that in the distant future, a Champions Cup-style tournament could be hosted at the end of the Super Rugby season incorporating teams from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Pacific Islands.
That idea may not hold too much merit for the wider public, at least at this stage. Already, questions have been raised concerning the rationale behind 2021’s trans-Tasman play-off, which will see the top team from NZ face off with the highest-ranked Australian side, given the perceived variation in strength between the two ‘conferences’ – and given the Sunwolves’ performances throughout their tenure in Super Rugby, the Japanese sides won’t be expected to fire a shot.
That may have been the case half a decade ago, but the landscape of Japan has changed dramatically. While there have always been foreigners in the Top League competition, the number and quality of those players has increased hugely in the last few years, with players of all ages and experience levels scattered throughout the competition.
An increased influx of foreigners has helped boost the league standards, which has also hugely benefitted the local players.
While there are plenty of teams in the competition who don’t quite have the investment or pedigree to foot it with the top dogs, there are certainly some clubs that could challenge Super Rugby’s best.
Former Crusaders and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans recently acknowledged as such, suggesting that the gap between the Top League and Super Rugby is getting narrower and narrower every year.
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“The standard’s good. It’s very good and it’s getting better and better,” Deans said. “From when I arrived up here (in 2014), it’s unrecognisable.
“If it’s not there already, it’s absolutely (reaching) Super Rugby level. But not across the whole comp. That’s not fair to say but if you take the top six teams, they’d all be competitive in Super Rugby.”
In the Top League’s 16-year history, there have been just four different champions crowned.
Toshiba Brave Lupus and Suntory Sungoliath have both managed five titles while Deans’ Panasonic Wild Knights have four to their name. Kobelco Steelers, meanwhile, won the first iteration of the competition in 2004 and were crowned the most recent champions in 2019.
While Toshiba haven’t quite recaptured their form from the first decade of the 2000’s, when they won all five of their titles, the other three sides have all regularly featured as finalists in the past five years and all boast plenty of talent amongst their ranks.
Suntory have both Barrett and Kerevi on their books for 2021, as well as Sean McMahon, Tevita Li and Harry Hockings. They’ve also got a number of Japanese representatives on deck, including Hendrik Tui and the Brave Blossom’s top halfback, Yutaka Nagare.
Former All Blacks and Chiefs coach Wayne Smith is director of rugby with Kobe and until last year had the former All Blacks pairing of Andy Ellis and Dan Carter to call upon in the halves. Their current squad includes Retallick, Aaron Cruden and Ben Smith, as well as 11 past or present Japanese internationals.
While Panasonic don’t have quite as many recognisable foreign names on board, Deans has moulded together an excellent team of current and upcoming Japanese superstars. Still, many should know of former Highlander, Melbourne Rebel and Sunwolf Shota Horie and electric wing Kenki Fukuoka (though his involvement in future seasons is uncertain, due to pursuing a medical degree). Former Wales midfielder Hadleigh Parkes and England international George Kruis are also on the ledger.
Suntory, Kobelco and Panasonic are the obvious candidates that could foot it with the best teams from New Zealand and Australia while the likes of Toshiba (Michael Leitch, Matt Todd, Tom Taylor and Seta Tamanivalu), Steve Hansen’s Toyota Verblitz (Michael Hooper, Kieran Read and Willie le Roux), NTT Docomo Shining Arcs (Amanaki Mafi, Liam Gill, Greg Laidlaw and Christian Lealiiafano) and Yamaha Jubilo (Kwagga Smith and Ayumu Goromaru) all have squads and management that are more than capable of at least challenging some of the Super Rugby sides.
It’s still too early to say what to expect from the future Japanese rugby landscape, but cross-over matches with the 12 teams set to compete in Super Rugby’s 2021 replacement are certainly worth considering in the next few years, once the two new tournaments have had time to bed in.
While it would be unrealistic to expect full integration between Asia and the Pacific – at least in the next decade – key stakeholders in Australia and New Zealand will no doubt be looking for ways of generating a little bit more cash, now than South Africa are no longer involved. The Japanese public showed during the 2019 World Cup and last year’s Top League competition that there’s certainly an appetite for rugby, especially when the best players in the world are regularly going head to head, and a few one-off clashes every year between the likes of the Crusaders and the Wild Knights, the Brumbies and Toyota Verblitz, and the Blues and the Sungoliath would no doubt draw in plenty of interest.
It might not be on the cards for next year, but it should certainly be under consideration for the coming seasons.
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