With well-paying contracts and attractive match schedules, more foreign rugby players are flocking to the Top League, Japan's rugby union league.
The Top League's new season gets under way Oct. 29, and industry insiders are hoping the addition of some of the world's top players will raise the popularity of rugby in Japan ahead of the nation hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
George Smith, a world-class flanker transferred this summer to Suntory Sungoliath from Toulon in the French Top 14 league, told reporters that Japan was an appealing place for him to take his career to the next level. Smith has played for the Australian national team for 10 years and has won a number of MVP awards.
Other Top League sides have also signed top players who have represented the national teams of New Zealand, England and other rugby playing nations.
"The World Cup is a big mountain to climb in one's rugby career, and it is typical for players to transfer to other teams after the World Cup," says Junichi Inagaki of the Japan Rugby Football Union. "This year, many World Cup participants are choosing to play for Japanese teams."
There are several reasons that make Japan an attractive place for professional rugby players. First, it enables players to play in both the Top League and Super Rugby, the premier league in the Southern Hemisphere that takes place between February and July.
One person already plans on taking this route.
Ricoh Black Rams and New Zealand national team member Ma'a Nonu will be participating in the Top League. After the Top League season is over, he says he will return to New Zealand to play in Super Rugby.
Compared with European teams that play 30 to 40 matches a year, Japan only has about 20 games a year. And Japan's focus on speed rather than power reduces the players' concerns about getting injured. And for Aussies and Kiwis, there is little time difference between Japan and their home countries.
Salaries for rugby players in Japan come to between 10 million yen and 20 million yen a year. Even if that is significantly lower than Smith's reported $1 million (76 million yen) salary from Suntory, it is much better than most other countries.
In the 2011 World Cup, Japan was bounced out in the first round without a single victory. This means that Japan may not be able to play against strongholds at future international meets. For this reason, some Japanese rugby officials believe the only way to strengthen the Japanese national team will be to have individual Japanese players participate in foreign leagues stronger than the Top League. Having the world's top rugby players in Japan's Top League is a reverse strategy, but is also expected to boost the level of Japanese players.
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