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Top League season on the brink, could lead to influx of players to New Zealand, Australia

By Tom Vinicombe
Michael Leitch. (Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)

The 2020 Top League was called to a halt after just six rounds of completed matches last year, with the season terminated due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. With the pandemic continuing to ravage Japan, the 2021 season could now be heading in the same direction.

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Already, the opening round fixtures between Toyota Verblitz and Suntory Sungoliath, and Ricoh Black Rams and Canon Eagles have been called off. Players from three of those four clubs, alongside two players from Toshiba Brave Lupus, have tested positive for coronavirus – also putting the game between Toshiba and NTT Communications Shining Arcs at risk.

Japan have declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and the prefectures of Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa, with Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures in the Kansai region, as well as Aichi and Gifu prefectures likely to be added in the coming days due to rising COVID-19 rates in those areas.

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A montage of our craziest year in memory.

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A montage of our craziest year in memory.

Despite the pandemic’s presence, throngs of fans are likely to be in attendance for any matches that go ahead over the coming weekends. A new 5,000 person limit has been imposed but it won’t be enforced on any events where tickets have already been sold.

Last year’s season was suspended following the sixth week of action, initially just for a two-week period due to the ever-spreading pandemic. The suspension was then extended for a further three weeks – allegedly as a consequence of one player testing positive for a banned substance – before the competition was called off altogether.

Japan’s current situation is far more dire, however, with daily infections peaking at over 7,000 per day in early January. In contrast, the 2020 Top League season was called off when Japan was experiencing not even a 10th as many daily cases last April.

RugbyPass understands that Top League officials are now deliberating significantly reducing the length of the 2021 season or calling it off altogether – although there are still hopes that the competition can continue as scheduled.

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A complete cancellation would be a disastrous turn of events for the nation that won over so many fans thanks to their performance at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

When the Top League was in full-swing last year, record crowds were in attendance to catch a glimpse of the superstars of 2019, with plenty of Japanese representatives as well as foreign marquee players turning out for clubs across Japan.

The cancelled season, however, would have inevitably taken some wind out of Japan’s sails. The national side also failed to take the field in 2020, further hampering the country’s rugby development.

While many of the Top League’s foreign imports would have no doubt appreciated a seriously condensed season last year, two seasons in a row without much rugby could leave some players desperate for minutes.

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Former All Blacks loose forward Elliot Dixon used the break to undertake some much-needed surgery while Brodie Retallick, who is now entering the second season of his Japan sabbatical, spent the time off recuperating on his family farm.

Players at the tail-end of their careers might not consider a second season off as a huge dent in their plans, especially if they are still compensated in full, but many players across Japan will be craving some action – which could open the door for some to make a return to their home nations.

Over 50 New Zealanders are contracted to Top League teams for the 2021 season, including former All Blacks Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith, Kieran Read and Colin Slade. Japanese talisman Michael Leitch was also born in New Zealand and previously represented the Chiefs.

It’s a similar story for Australia, with recent Wallabies such as Michael Hooper, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, Bernard Foley and Samu Kerevi all contracted to Japanese sides.

While New Zealand and Australian Super Rugby sides have well and truly locked in their squads for the coming season, they may suddenly find a host of former internationals knocking on their doors trying to find somewhere to play their rugby.

While Highlanders fans would no doubt welcome the return of Ben Smith, and Reds supporters would love to see their young side boosted by some extra experience in the form of Samu Kerevi, the ideal scenario would naturally see the Top League progress as initially planned.

As much as some NZ and Australian teams may benefit from having former players back in the mix, Japanese rugby would gain so much more from operating an uninterrupted, star-studded Top League season.

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Jon 1 hours ago
Sam Cane was unfairly cast in Richie McCaw's shadow for too long

> McCaw’s durability and sustained excellence were unique, but we seemed to believe his successors were cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to forget McCaw was just as heavily critiqued for the last two years of his career. The only real difference was his captaining criticisms and his playing criticisms happened at different times, where Cane was criticized for a few things in both areas for all of his last 4 years. This was also heavily influenced by another McCaw esque presence, in Ardie Savea, being in the team and pushed out of his original position. It could be said we essentially didn’t have the 3 prior years with Ardie as world player of the year because he was changing into this new role. I say “original” position as despite him never coming out and saying his desire is to perform his role from, that I know of, clearly as part of a partnership with Cane as 7, I don’t think this was because he really wanted Cane’s playing spot. I think it most likely that it comes down to poor All Black management that those sort of debates weren’t put to bed as being needless and irrelevant. It has been brought up many times in past few months of discussions on articles here at RP, that early calls in WC cycles, to say pigeonhole an All Black team into being required to have a physical dynamo on defence at 7 (and ballplyaer at 8 etc) are detrimental. In the end we did not even come up against a team that threw large bodies at us relentlessly, like why we encountered in the 2019 WC semi final, at all in this last WC. Even then they couldn’t see the real weakness was defending against dynamic attacks (which we didn’t want to/couldn’t give 2019 England credit for) like the Twickenham Boks, and Irish and French sides (even 10 minutes of an English onslaught) that plagued our record and aura the last 4 years. It really is a folly that is the All Blacks own creation, and I think it pure luck, and that Cane was also such a quality All Black, that he was also became an integral part of stopping the side from getting run off the park. Not just rampaged. > The hushed tones, the nods of approval, the continued promotion of this nonsense that these men are somehow supernatural beings. I bet this author was one of those criticizing Cane for coming out and speaking his mind in defence of his team that year. Despite the apparent hypocrisy I agree with the sentiment, but I can only see our last captain as going down the same road his two prior captains, Read and McCaw, have gone. I am really for Cane becoming an extra member to each squad this year, June, RC, and November tours, and he is really someone I can see being able to come back into the role after 3 seasons in Japan. As we saw last year, we would have killed for someone of his quality to have been available rather than calling on someone like Blackadder. Just like the Boks did for 2023.

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