2019 is a big year for Japanese rugby with the nation set to host Asia's first Rugby World Cup. Here are our predictions for what will happen over the next 12 months:
1. BRAVE BLOSSOMS VENTURE OVERSEAS
2016 marked a minor watershed moment for Japanese players, with several players making the relatively rare move of joining an overseas club. Brave Blossoms’ exploits at RWC 2015 saw both Amanaki Mafi and Kensuke Hatakeyama move to the English Premiership with Bath and Newcastle respectively, while Kotaro Matsushima and Ayumu Goromaru signed for Australian franchises in Super Rugby.
Japanese players’ chances to play overseas have been limited these past couple of years due to the almost compulsory commitment to the Sunwolves and national team. However, given the uncertainty over the Japanese franchise’s future and the fact that they will no longer be pinned to the club, we could see an increase in Brave Blossoms moving overseas at the tail-end of 2019.
Having played four seasons for the Chiefs, Michael Leitch could be a prime candidate for a stint in Europe following what may be his final Rugby World Cup. Kenki Fukuoka and Kazuki Himeno are players who could also both benefit from pastures new by testing themselves on a bigger stage.
2. WHISPER IT QUIETLY
Those in the southern hemisphere will be familiar with the nature of Japanese rugby crowds through Sunwolves in Super Rugby. However, the atmosphere at Rugby World Cup games this year may come as a shock to those from the northern hemisphere witnessing a rugby game in Japan for the first time.
Japanese rugby crowds are not boisterous for the most part and tries will be greeted by a cheer and ripple of applause, which may surprise foreign fans. Expect plenty of ‘SO RESPECTFUL’ or ‘RUGBY WORLD CUP ATMOSPHERE LIKE NO OTHER’ to be crossed off your commentary bingo cards this autumn.
3. TOP LEAGUE REFORM?
A number of key Japan internationals will seemingly be limited to bit-part roles for Sunwolves this season as the JRFU effectively wrap them in cotton wool to ensure they are all fit for Rugby World Cup in September.
Stars such as Michael Leitch, Kazuki Himeno and Kenki Fukuoka have not joined the team’s first pre-season training camp, while the likes of Kotaro Matsushima and Timothy Lafaele are yet to be announced as Sunwolves players for the 2019 Super Rugby season.
While Sunwolves will play a record five games in Tokyo this season, the absence of core Japan players from the side will not draw in locals, with most fans unfamiliar with some of the names on the teamsheet.
4. TIME FOR CHANGE IN THE TOP LEAGUE
The introduction of the Top Challenge League last season, a second-tier national competition, saw the three regional leagues merge into one feeder division to the Top League. However, there is no guarantee that the side that finishes top of the Top Challenge League will gain promotion to the Top League, with the top four sides facing the bottom four of the Top League in a one-off play-off match.
There is a clear split in the Top League with the same handful of teams struggling at the foot of the Top League season and alternating between the Top Challenge League each season. A 16-team format Top League is simply not healthy for the long-term competitiveness of Japanese rugby.
Rumours of a Korean league joining the Top League in a reduced number of teams format have been rife for the past few years and we may see a reform following Rugby World Cup 2019 to give fans better spectacles of games.
5. SAYONARA, JAMIE?
Following Japan’s heroics at RWC 2015 and subsequent impressive displays against France and England to name but a few, there is a heap of expectation from within the JRFU for Jamie Joseph and Japan to reach the knockout stage of the Rugby World Cup.
While the Sunwolves have improved considerably under his stewardship and he has seemingly transformed the Brave Blossoms defence with the aid of John Plumtree and Ben Herring, the JRFU are notoriously hard to please and the results this autumn will ultimately decide his Japan future.