For Sonny Bill Williams, his twelve game stint in the Japanese Top League was supposed to be a chance to get out of the limelight for a bit and experience a new culture before his returns to rugby league. Oh yeah, plus there was the $1.4 million contract that might have acted as an incentive. However, four games into his season (1/3 of his time in Japan or roughly $466k) he is feeling under pressure. His team, the Panasonic Sanyo Wildknights, sit fifth in the table, a clear nine points back of leaders Suntory Sungoliath.
In speaking with the Kyodo News Agency, Williams expressed that he felt “disappointed and frustrated” about not being able to deliver results for his fans. Williams further suggested that he was to blame for his team’s losses, but anyone who knows about the Top League, or rugby in general, should be able to tell you that it’s not surprising that one player can’t come in and change the fortunes of an entire team. After all, the Top League features some of the best players from the last ten years and is no pub league. So for people to think that Sonny Bill can just come in and dominate is a little naïve about rugby in Japan or rugby outside a Tier I nation.
The Top League began nine years ago with the intention of patterning the league after the J-League, which had launched in the early 1990’s to immediate success. Not only was the J-League successful in the stands (only rivaled by baseball for Japanese fans' attention), but it also helped improve the performance of the Japanese national team on the international stage. With Japan co-hosting the World Cup in 2002, the Japanese Football Association felt it was imperative to get their top players playing regularly and with some of the best competition in the world (sound familiar U.S. fans?). Teams and corporate sponsors immediately signed on allow Japanese teams to sign high-priced foreign talent and coaches (Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger got his start in Japan). The changes didn’t happen overnight and Japan still as a long way to go before being considered a challenger for the World Cup, but all in all, the JFA’s plan worked. Since the J-League began, Japan made the quarterfinals of the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, and picked up three Asian titles.
Seeing the success of the J-League, former Japanese scrum-half Hiroaki Shukuzawa decided to do the same for rugby. Thus, the Top League was born. There had been professional rugby prior to 2003-4 (the Top League’s first season) but it had not been organized to the point of a regular season and a specific structure. Shukuzawa was successful in that he was able to get the large corporations that support rugby in Japan (all the teams take the name of their corporate sponsors, i.e. Panasonic is paying Sonny Bill) to come together.
So far, the results have been mixed. On the positive side, the Cherry Blossoms have become a very consistent team and have seen their results improve year by year. They are now considered one of the best Tier II teams in the world and pencil-in Asian champs. Much of this is due the Top League’s ability to giving younger Japanese players the opportunity to get regular training and playing time.
Another important side effect of the league has been the number of overseas-born players that have suited up for Japan since the league began. If the names Ryan Nicholas, Toetu’u Taufa, James Arlidge, Murray Williams, and Alisi Tupuailai don’t sound Japanese, that is because they’re not. One of the league's current rules is that teams can sign an extra foreign player if that player could become Japan eligible. This has dramatically increased—with controversy of course—the numbers of players available to Japan at the skilled positions. Aside from the foreign-born players eligible to play for Japan, the Top League has brought in its fair share of big stars. Because the teams are backed by wealthy corporations and patrons, the league has been able to sign the likes of Sonny Bill and Jacque Fourie, the highest paid player in world rugby. Other famous names currently playing in the league are Jerry Collins, Issac Ross, Peter John Grant, Brad Thorn, Cameron McIntyre, Riki Flutey, and Peter Hewat. Shane Williams is finishing up his career in the Japanese 2nd division. Still, it’s not just older players that are looking for a pay day; younger players like Todd Clever, Alex Tuilagi, and now Sonny Bill all play in the league. Previously, James Haskell and Ma’a Nonu have had stints in Japan.
It may be easy to write off the league because foreign players are earning big paychecks, but that would be a mistake. The Top League is quality both in terms of training and on the pitch. Ask any European club coach out there if he wouldn’t jump at the chance to have one of those players list above on their team. They wouldn’t do it.
Another positive for the Top League is their regional approach. Every team is allowed to have an Asian player that is not Japanese on their game day roster and not have that player count against foreign player quotas. This has led to a number of South Koreans, and several Filipino and Chinese players getting an opportunity to hone their skills. In turn, this improves the quality of competition that the Cherry Blossoms face every year, making them a better program.
Still, the Top League hasn’t generated nearly as much interest as was originally thought. The J-League regularly averaged good crowds in the tens of thousands, but so far the Top League can only seem to get a few thousand at the matches. Sonny Bill’s addition to the league hasn’t had the “David Beckham effect” that people expected him to have. It’s curious why the league can’t turn those big paychecks into big attention. One of the main culprits may be the lack of television coverage. Not only are Top League games on television rare outside of Japan, but they are also rare inside Japan.
When David Beckham came to the U.S. almost every single one of his matches was televised nationally. This was done because not only did he generate a lot of interest domestically, but people who had followed his time in Europe wanted to see what this new league was like. Was he just going there to earn a paycheck or was he actually going to play decent soccer? No matter how one views the answer to that question, there is no doubt that he brought new levels of exposure to MLS and soccer in America. That is why it’s interesting that Japan hasn’t done the same with Sonny Bill or any of the other stars in the Top League. Fans are curious about the quality of the league and if the league were to have more exposure, revenue would increase.
What happens to the Top League in the next few years will be interesting to watch. Can it sustain its high-spending ways or will the whole thing collapse under low-attendance and lack of television exposure? The next time you are checking scores from around the world, don’t forget to check in with the Top League and experience something new.
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