Friday, September 14, 2012


RiJ has been working back through the history of Japan tests and this week looks at the first of three tests against the visiting New Zealand Universities in 1970. Meanwhile, the Japan U20s are having to go through qualification for the IRB JWRT in HK at the moment, though there is no update on that this week. RiJ also tries to make some sense of the changes set to beset TL from the 2013-14 season with a critical perspective on the changes.

Ian McDonnell lives and works in Japan. He can be contacted at


  • Japan Test Match & Player History Project: 1970 NZU, First Test
  • IRB JWRT 2013: Asian Qualification
  • Top League Changes: a Critical Perspective


The Japan Test Match & Player History Project

For nine years now RiJ has been documenting Japanese rugby across various levels of the game. More recently, however, RiJ has recognised the need to accurately document the history of Japanese test match rugby and the players that have represented Japan down through the years. With this in mind, RiJ has embarked on a project to write the history of Japanese international rugby, detail every test that Japan has played and profile every player that has represented Japan.

New Zealand Universities and British Columbia Tours to Japan 1970: NZU First Test

In March 1970 New Zealand Universities and also the British Colombia Bears toured Japan in what was an overlapping triangular series involving the two touring teams and Japan.

NZU played nine games on tour including three tests against Japan and one game against BC winning all nine games. The long tour also included Hong Kong and Hawaii as well as Japan on the itinerary. NZU had previously toured Japan in 1936 for one win and a draw and again in 1967 winning both tests played making this their third tour of Japan. However, these two sides also squared off in Wellington on the 1968 Japan tour of New Zealand with NZU also winning on that occasion.

On the other hand, BC played five games, losing the test against Japan and also the game against NZU but winning the three other games against provincial and university sides. BC had previously toured Japan in 1959, losing the first test in Osaka and then drawing the second test in Tokyo making this their second tour of Japan. However, Japan played their inaugural test against BC in Vancouver in 1930 which played out to a 3-all draw while the second overseas tour for Japan was also to the same Canadian province in 1963 with Japan winning 33-6. Furthermore, the full Canadian national side toured Japan in 1932, losing the two test played on that tour meaning the record for British Columbia and Canada against Japan stood at two draws and five losses at the completion of this 1970 tour.

As for the Japan national side, they played four tests in the series, losing the three against NZU but beating BC.

Before the opening test, NZU beat All-Waseda University 36-3 on 1 March and All-Hosei University 29-14 on 4 March with both games played at the Chichibu ground in Tokyo. In the first of three test, played in front of 15,000 fans at the same venue on Sunday, 8 March 1970, in what was Japan test number 29 and Japan game number 68, Japan were coached by Tetsunosuke Onishi who as the eighth national coach was in his fourth year of what would be five straight years in the job. Twenty-nine year old hooker Tadahiko Omata from the Mitsubishi Motors Kyoto club as the oldest player in the Japan team was captain on his test debut becoming the twentieth person to captain Japan.

After comfortable wins in their opening two games, the visiting NZU found the going tougher against the full Japan side holding on to win 16-6. NZU scored one converted try in the first half with Japanese flanker Yoshiharu Yamaguchi kicking a penalty taking the sides to halftime with the visitors leading 5-3. NZU opened up the game somewhat in the second half adding a further three tries and one conversion while Yamaguchi kicked a second penalty to complete the scoring.

In total, there were seven survivors in this Japanese side from the last time these two sides met in Wellington in June 1968 in prop Morio Kawasaki, lock Hiroshi Ogasawara, flanker Yamaguchi, wings Yoshihiro Sakata and Tadayuki Ito, centre Akira Yokoi and fullback Katsuji Mantani. Sakata and Ito were the most capped players in the Japanese team with seven caps each, while captain Omata was the only player on debut. Adding to the experience in the squad was the fact that Onishi was also the head coach of Japan on the tour of New Zealand in 1968.

Centre Gerald Kember who would earn one cap against South Africa in 1970 and a further 18 games for the All Blacks was the captain of the touring varsity party. Kember captained NZU against Japan in Wellington in 1968 while he also played in both tests against Japan in 1967. Five-eighth Earle Kirton who made his international debut for the All Blacks against England in London in 1967 was another who played in both tests against Japan in 1967. Kember and Kirton were among the numerous survivors from previous encounters with Japan while outside centre Grahame Thorne with ten caps between 1968 and 1970 and right wing Mike O’Callaghan with three caps against France in 1968 were other All Blacks in the ranks.

One of the interesting features of this test was the fact that the referee, Kazuhisa Tsutsumi (Tatsuno) (Japan player number 120, Japan captain number 16), also played one test for Japan against Oxford and Cambridge in Osaka in 1959 as No8 and captain. This made him unique in that he represented and also captained Japan and then refereed an international rugby match involving Japan.

New Zealand Universities 36 d All-Waseda University 3, 01 March 1970, Chichibu, Tokyo.

New Zealand Universities 29 d All-Hosei University 14, 04 March 1970, Chichibu, Tokyo.

Japan 6 – New Zealand Universities 16. Sunday, 08 March 1970, Chichibu, Tokyo. (Test No.29, Japan Game No.68)

IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2013

Asian Qualifiers

Asian qualification for the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2013 will be held at the Kings Park Sports Ground in Hong Kong from Wednesday 25 July to Sunday 5 August 2012.

The JWRT is an under twenty tournament, however, players taking part in the qualifiers are aged under nineteen in order to qualify as under twenty in 2013.

Ryuji Nakatake, head coach (JRFU)
Masahiro Nakase, coach (Tokyo Gas)

Game 1: Japan U19 v South Korea U19
Date: Sunday 29 July 2012
Kick-off: 5:00 PM local Hong Kong time

Game 2: Japan U19 v Thailand U19
Date: Wednesday 01 August 2012
Kick-off: 5:00 PM local Hong Kong time

Game 3: Japan U19 v Hong Kong U19
Date: Saturday 04 August 2012
Kick-off: 6:45 PM local Hong Kong time


Major Changes to Top League from the

2013-14 Season: a Critical Perspective

On 18 July 2012, the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) and the Japan Rugby Top League (TL) organisers announced some significant changes to the format of the structure and season of TL from 2013-14. The 2013-14 season will be the eleventh season of the premier corporate rugby league in Japan after kicking off back in 2003-4 with twelve teams.

The major changes are:

Participating teams will be increased from 14 to 16 teams.

The league will be divided into two stages.

In Stage One, one particularly interesting change is that the 16 teams will be divided into two pools of 8 teams. The teams that finish one through 12 in the up-coming 2012-13 season automatically qualify, the teams that finish thirteenth and fourteenth play the teams that finish fourth and third respectively in the 2013 Top Challenge (TC) series, the TL qualifying series for regional leagues, to determine two places while these 14 teams will be joined by the two sides that finish first and second in TC. Stage One will run from late August to late October with the eight teams in each pool playing every team in the same pool once on a round robin basis.

In Stage Two, the sixteen teams will again be divided into two groups of eight teams depending on the order they finish in Stage One. Group A will consist of the eight teams that finished first through fourth in each pool in Stage One while Group B will be made of the eight teams that finished fifth through eighth in each pool. To add motivation for the teams to finish in as high a position as possible in Stage One, for Stage Two, four bonus points (BP) will be given to the teams that finish first in each pool in the first stage, while the two teams that finish second will get three BPs, teams that finish third will get two BPs and teams that finish fourth will get one BP. Stage Two will run from December through to late January.

Top League Play-off Series: The teams that finish first through fourth in Group A in Stage Two will progress to the Top League Play-off Series to determine the overall TL champion for the season. in the semi-finals, first will play fourth and second play third with the two winners meeting in the final. In addition, these four sides automatically qualify for the National Championship (NC). The Play-off series will take place in February.

Wildcard Tournament: The 8 teams that finish fifth through twelfth (that is, fifth to eighth in Group A and first to fourth in Group B) will play-off in the Wildcard Tournament to with the two teams that make it to the final gaining admission to the NC. The Wildcard Tournament will take place in February at the same time as the Play-off series is happening.

Top League Promotion and Relegation Series: The three teams that finish thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth overall (that is, fifth, sixth and seventh in Group B) will have a one-off play-off with the teams that finish fourth, third and second in TC to maintain their places in TL for the following season.

Automatic Relegation and Promotion: Over the previous ten seasons of TL the two teams that finish last and second last were automatically relegated with the two highest placed teams in TC gaining promotion to take their places. However, from the 2013-14 season only the last placed finisher will be relegated with the top placed team in TC being promoted.

A critical perspective

It must be said that the changes to be implemented in the structure of Top League are a vast improvement on the existing format. Increasing the number of teams from fourteen to sixteen means more teams are exposed to the highest level of domestic rugby in Japan. The increase in teams also sees the number of regular season games increase from 91 to 112 giving fans more opportunities to get to games and this can only be a good thing. The second stage group phase also has its merit in that it brings the stronger teams together with the result that over the course of the regular season the top teams will face each other more than just once. Decreasing the teams that are relegated from two to one is also a positive thing.

However, for all the constructive points to come along with these changes, the approach is hardly revolutionary and by and large the big issues with the overall structure of Top League on the one hand and domestic rugby in Japan on the other hand are all but being ignored.

Some of these issues are:

Increasing the number of teams and exposing more sides to TL does not really do anything to close the ever widening gap between the strong and weak sides in the competition. There is no draft system in the quasi-professional TL meaning the good players go to the strong teams. There is no level playing field with the strong getting stronger and everyone else treading water.

Simple is best. Stages, pools, groups, bonus points, window month, play-offs, Wildcard, promotion and relegation play-offs. Hmm, this is all getting a bit complicated.

The TL-University conflict. The majority of local Japanese rugby players go through the university system which in effect locks out players under the age of about 23 from participating in a unified national full strength domestic competition.

The November window month. TL stops for about five weeks over a period in the autumn when weather conditions are at their best for rugby in Japan. TL stops when the Japan national side is formed over November and with a Japan squad of about 30 players and then a few other foreign players that return to their national sides meaning that there is no TL for an extended period in the middle of the season. Yes, this allows university rugby to take the limelight in the absence of any TL but the fact there is no TL for such a long period of time at such a critical time in the season must be of concern. Ultimately, whether or not TL should run through November is open to debate, but the fact is there is no debate at the moment.

Strictly company based teams are holding back the growth of rugby in Japan. All rugby stakeholders in Japan need to sit around a table and thrash out and then put in place the vision for the future. The company based system of rugby teams is a traditional aspect of rugby in Japan and it worked well back in the amateur days of the 1960s, 70s and 80s when soccer was not a threat, the economy and companies were booming and there were next to no foreign players. God bless the commitment to rugby from these companies as without their support there would be no senior rugby in Japan but the time to move on and change is here. Attendances at TL games are generally very poor and most people that do fly a team flag are attached to that company. Teams need to decentralise, regionalise, connect with local communities and set up home bases and home grounds.

The lack of a unified regional league below TL. With 16 teams to participate in TL that means regional rugby is scratching the bottom of the barrel. Apart from a few sides like Coca-Cola, Honda and Toyota Industries in the Kyushu and Kansai regions company rugby is almost dead. Kanto is better but far from good and until a unified national TL Division 2 is set up things are only going to get worse. Moreover, this whole issue is another indicator of the need to regionalise and make the best use of limited rugby resources.

The Wildcard Tournament and the National Championship. The WT is a recent invention for teams that finish mid table to battle it out for qualification to the NC. With extremely low crowds and lack of popularity the WT lacks credibility. However, the bigger picture is the total lack of value of the NC and the head in the sand approach by the JRFU in their state of denial and reluctance to do anything about it.

The promotion and relegation play-offs have been retained in the in-coming system. Over nine years of trying, no team ever won a place in TL through the P&R play-offs so why keep it in the new system.

Over-reliance on foreign players. The prospect of watching some of the world’s best rugby players do their stuff right here in TL in Japan is truly mouth-watering. This coming season the likes of Shane Williams, Sonny Bill Williams, Rocky Elsom and a long list of other household names will be playing in Japan. Simply amazing. However, one has to step back and ask where this is all going. Yes, the restrictions on foreign players has been tightened for his season, but the big question is what is it doing for the development of up-and-coming local talent? One only has to look at the five-eighths running around in TL and there are very Japanese wearing the number ten jersey.

To decide to make any changes at all to the way TL is run was the golden opportunity for rugby Japan to put their best foot forward and make some radical changes. The clock is ticking down to the 2019 RWC in Japan and although there is still plenty of water to flow under the bridge the time is upon us to turn rugby on its head and create a bigger and better environment in Japan and east Asia that will rival what soccer has done and make the international rugby community stand up and take notice.

As such the changes to take effect next season in TL are a good thing and something to be commended, but at the same time it is an opportunity wasted and lost to make the necessarily more significant and far-reaching changes to rugby in Japan and the region. Regionalise or die really must be the motto, as if rugby in Japan does not connect with communities at the local level and look to expand beyond the borders at the Asian level growth will not be achieved. Rugby in this part of the world will not reach the goals it has set itself if these issues are not truly addressed and a global viewpoint is not taken. A sense of crisis combined with a frontier spirit is needed to make the possible a reality.

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