Corporate clubs, rich tradition but hamper the development of Japanese rugby

Japan celebrates its victory against Ireland on September 28, 2019 in Shizuoka.
Japan celebrates its victory against Ireland on September 28, 2019 in Shizuoka. Eugene Hoshiko / AP

The World Cup, what does the country welcome? A success. The course of the national team in this Mondial at home? A clear fault so far, with two victories – against Russia and, especially, Ireland – and a third match, against Samoa Saturday, October 5, for which it is a favorite.

Suffice to say that all this has something to cheer the leaders of Japanese rugby. The latter intend to take the opportunity to advance in the field of professionalization of the sport. A project to create a Top League, a championship that would be launched in 2021 and would bring together 12 clubs – one for each host city of the World Cup – should be unveiled in mid-November.

"We need to quickly finalize the professional league if we want to compete globally. Kensuke Hatakeyama, former international

This project is led by Katsuyuki Kiyomiya, a figure in Japanese rugby and vice-president of the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU). "It's the only way to change Japanese rugby", to revitalize a sport that has only 75,000 practitioners, against more than 200,000 in the 1980s, ensures the one who was appointed to this post by Yoshiro Mori, former prime minister and grand author of Japanese rugby.

"We need to quickly finalize the professional league if we want to compete globally"says Kensuke Hatakeyama, former international and president of the Japanese Players Association.

Easier to say than done. On June 29, Yoshiro Mori dismissed JRFU leaders, such as Yuichi Ueno, who opposed professionalization. This would end the traditional system of corporate rugby, to which many remain attached. "We talk about it, but nothing is decided," Yoshihiko Sakuraba, former international second-line and Nippon Steel club, now manager of the Kamaishi Seawaves, one of the training courses to become a professional.

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Corporate rugby developed after the war in large industrial groups for the well-being of staff but also for the image. The players were mostly employees. " It was necessary to lead two careers, remembers Takanobu Horikawa, general manager (and former player) of Yamaha Jubilo, employed in the accounting of the industrialist. At 5 pm, work was stopped. We trained from 18 to 20 hours and we went back to work. "


Business leaders value the values ​​of rugby: integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect. "People with rugby experience are fully engaged in their work"says Hiroyuki Yanagi, president of Yamaha.

Some employees reach the highest level. Takuya Kitade, hooker of the Japan team, is a commercial of the food giant Suntory. For players, corporate rugby is also a guarantee of employment once the career is over.

"In the morning from 8 to 10 o'clock, it is the bodybuilding then one works from 10 to 15 hours, before starting again with the training. Takanobu Horikawa, manager and former Yamaha Jubilo player

In 2003, a reform had already begun to instil a dose of professionalism and try to revive the public interest. The championship was then reorganized around a Top League with 16 teams and a second division, the Challenge League, bringing together eight clubs.

Consequence: for the players, the hours of work fall in favor of the trainings. "In the morning from 8 to 10 o'clock, it's weight training then we work from 10 to 15 hours, before going back to training"explains Horikawa.

Professional contracts are established. Yamaha has 50 players, including ten foreigners and five professional Japanese, including star Ayumu Goromaru, revealed at the 2015 World Cup in England.

The reform did not change the fundamentals. The problem is that the teams depend on the good will of the leaders. That of Yamaha was born from a choice made in 1984 by a group of rugby leaders, starting with the then number 3, Hitoshi Nagayasu.

Investment at a loss

For companies, rugby is mainly part of social responsibility operations and is not intended for profitability. "The teams buy match tickets from the federation and offer them to employees"says Yutaka Masamoto, manager of the Yamaha team. There is no identification to a region as it can be seen in football.

No marketing, no sponsorship, companies invest at a loss, on average 1.5 billion yen (13 million euros) per year. Admittedly, the means are sufficient. The Yamaha Training Center in Iwata (Shizuoka Department, Center) has new and high quality facilities.

But the average attendance at rugby stadiums does not exceed 5,200 spectators. Even the arrival of stars like New Zealand's Dan Carter against a million euros to play with Kobe Steel, has not changed the situation.

The life of the team depends closely on that of the company. "At the time of the 2008 crisis, the budget was divided by two, remembers Takanobu Horikawa. Yamaha then recruited those who were in pro contract. " This was the case of Ayumu Goromaru, hired in the public relations department, before becoming professional again after the 2015 World Cup.

"With the current economic situation, it is becoming more and more difficult to continue to maintain a rugby team", admits Kobe Steel, winner of the last championship.

The annual spending of Japanese rugby in 2017 was 28.6 billion yen (242 million), the third highest budget in the world, behind the Top 14 and the English championship. But the gains do not exceed 3.8 billion yen (32 million euros).

This is enough to support Mr Kiyomiya's argument, which can be based on the success of the Sunwolves, a team created in 2015 in Tokyo to play Super Rugby, a competition between 15 New Zealand, Australian and South African franchises. Argentine, Australian and Japanese. The team refueled each of its matches in the Japanese capital and, above all, attracted sponsors.


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