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Rugby: Signs good for Japan League One after difficult 1st season

FILE - New Zealand's Damian McKenzie runs in to score a try during the rugby international between the All Blacks and the USA Eagles at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- Leading figures in Japan's new professional rugby competition are looking ahead with confidence after an inaugural season which wooed fans and confirmed the league's allure to the world's leading players.

    Japan Rugby League One faced early headwinds as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of matches and limited attendances.

    But as the season wore on and the affect of the pandemic abated, crowds grew to levels which pleased organizers and the standard of rugby exceeded the league's predecessor, the Japan Top League which was Japan's leading professional competition for 20 years.

    The inaugural season fulfilled a prime objective in providing a foundation for future growth. The league has strong support from some of Japan's largest corporations and the overseas players who took part in the first edition of JRLO were pleased with the standard of rugby it produced.

    Among the goals for the future are to build rugby's fan base in Japan, to work towards the league's expansion to other Asian markets and eventually to develop cross-border competitions with Australia, New Zealand and other nations.

    Chairman Genichi Tamatsuka and chief operating officer Hireme Shoji both are ambitious for the league to become one of the best in the world and see scope for improvement in a second season less disrupted than the first.

    "The first season we obviously had a tough beginning because of COVID," Tamatsuka said. "We were expecting an audience of 40,000 or more for the first match which was scheduled on January 7 but that was canceled because some of the Panasonic players were infected by COVID.

    "After that we had many games cancelled and that was obviously a very tough start and every team had to manage the COVID. But times goes by. After maybe March, April, another half of the season we could really manage those really tough situations and we reached the final.

    "We still have many areas to be improved but overall under a tough COVID situation we did quite well."

    Tamatsuka said the standard of overseas players in the league in its first season -- among them the New Zealander Damian McKenzie, England's George Kruis and Australia's Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi -- boosted the league.

    "We had about 60 (overseas) players for 24 teams," he said. "For each player the average number of (test) caps is 30 which means we have 1,800 total cap-holders playing division one, division two, division three. Their presence clearly pushed up the level of the games and also was an influence on the Japanese players."

    Shoji said the purpose of the JRLO was to shift rights from the Japan Rugby Union to the teams who now can focus on profitibility and re-investment in the league.

    "This is leading to better team conditions and better teams," he said. "We believe this kind of stronger team will lead to a stronger Japan team and the objective of the league is to strengthen the level of the game and financial condition of the teams as well.

    "On this objective, the level of the game has been higher with many new players coming from overseas."

    Building a wider fan base in Japan is a challenge. Shoji said JRLO plans to use both a bottom-up and top-down strategies to widen rugby's following in Japan. The development of digital technology to better interact with fans and the ability of clubs to market rugby in their areas both will be crucial.

    "The Japanese rugby fan typically is an older man," he said. "However, ladies and children, families and coming together at the stadium based on the effort of the team to attract the new fans.

    "There are lots of areas for improvement and we are proceeding based on input from the media and fans. Firstly, the brand of League One still is not penetrating well to the broader consumer or among candidates for fans."

    Shoji said the JRLO already is in discussion with New Zealand and Australia among others about eventual cross-border competition. Questions of existing calendars and scheduling will have to resolved first.

    "Tamatsuka-san is always mentioning the necessity and potential for expansion of this league to the Asian market or beyond," he said.

    Tamatsuka said "we have to discuss with New Zealand and Australia the structure of the calendar with their season and our season.

    "If we have that kind of opportunity when should be the first year and when is the best timing and how we should manage for that? We could dispatch two teams and they dispatch two teams or four teams each.

    "We have to maybe consider many initiatives and we have to clarify many things. However, we want to keep discussion with them about the many arrangements for cross-border competition. That's very clear."

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