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.
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.
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.
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.
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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