Very popular, Japanese university rugby struggles to emerge professional champions, who remain prisoners of a system operating in a closed circuit.
In the Japanese rugby fantasy, university rugby occupies a special place. Its annual championship, won in 2019 by Meiji University, remains so popular that its final stages are broadcast live by the NHK public channel, with good audiences in a country where the sport is practiced by only 75,000 people.
This success is due to its history. It was at Keio private university in Tokyo that the Cambridge-educated Edward Bramwell Clarke (1874-1934) of Scotland, in 1899, created a rugby section, with Ginnosuke Tanaka (1873-1933), a Japanese man also by Cambridge. The sport has developed, maintaining a somewhat aristocratic image, including the support of Prince Chichibu (1902-1953) whose rugby stadium bears the name.
Great craze in the 1980s
After the second world war, university rugby played a major role in the revival of the sport and its popularity, which reached a peak in the 1980s. Thus, the match of December 5, 1982 between Waseda and Meiji, the historic bastions of the university championship, attracted 66,999 spectators at the Tokyo National Stadium, built for the Olympic Games in 1964. Hundreds of thousands of people were denied entry. The tickets were awarded to the lottery.
In Japan, rugby has always been considered a good school for acquiring company values, including loyalty, discipline and commitment
"If you could play in a match like Waseda against Meiji, you felt like you could die quietly", recalls Manabu Matsuse, former hooker of the Waseda team who participated in the meeting of 1982. "The goal was to play a Waseda-Meiji match. The rest was only bonus. " Beyond the sport, in Japan, rugby has also always been considered as a good school for acquiring company values, including loyalty, discipline and commitment, and university players easily find work. The alumni network makes it easy for them.
But this operation poses a problem for rugby itself, because it blocks the emergence of high level players. "In university teams, there are often 200 to 300 players. But they are always the same ones who play the matches, explains Takanobu Horikawa, manager of the Yamaha rugby team.
Prisoners of the university corridor
While players in the same age group, between 18 and 22, make their debut in major French, English or New Zealand championships, or even internationally, in Japan they are prisoners of the university straitjacket. "It's like a hole in their career. In high school, they are still competitive with foreigners, but after they lose their best years. "
At the same time, university rugby operates a bit in closed circuit, with a training of a limited level. This system was criticized by the Australian Eddie Jones when he coached Japan between 2011 and 2015. "I attended a college match on the weekend, and it felt like I had gone back in time. I thought I was in the 1950s. I have to be honest, it's just not rugby. I do not know what they do in training, but they have to change, " he said in 2013, on the eve of a tour in Europe without a university player.
The only players to have recently emerged at the top level between the ages of 18 and 22 are Kotaro Matsushima and Yoshikazu Fujita (both born in 1993). The first dropped out of high school to train abroad, at the Sharks Academy in South Africa and in the under-19 team in Toulouse. The second had, before the university, played in New Zealand.