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18:36 16 February 2016

Rugby: New format for Top League, All-Japan C'ship in the works

By Rich Freeman
TOKYO, Feb. 16, Kyodo

The Japan Rugby Football Union will hold its monthly council meeting on Thursday and Kyodo News has learned that one of the topics to be discussed and perhaps decided upon will be the format of the 2016-2017 Top League season and All-Japan Championship.

The need to allow Japan's Super Rugby team the Sunwolves enough time to prepare for the Southern Hemisphere season means the Top League and the season-ending All-Japan Championship must be finished well before the Super Rugby campaign starts.

"Realistically the long term vision is for the Sunwolves to have five to six weeks building into the season and for us to hold at least two Super Rugby quality preseason games," coach Mark Hammett said after Saturday's win over a Top League XV.

This year, the Sunwolves will have just two weeks of training and one warm-up game before they take on the Lions on Feb. 27 in Tokyo, after the problem was further confounded by the Rugby World Cup.

With the Top League not starting until the second week of November, the past season consisted of just 10 games, with the teams split into two groups of eight followed by three rounds of playoffs.

Kyodo understands from a number of sources that the Japan Rugby Football Union has been discussing with clubs the option of returning to the league's original format -- a round-robin affair with the first-place team declared champions.

This would see the current playoff format, introduced in the 2006-2007 season when the league expanded to 14 teams from 12, abandoned but the sides would play at least 15 games.

The league's two-stage, two-pool format -- introduced in 2013 when the league underwent a further expansion -- is also set to be discarded.

While other options have been discussed, such as the introduction of a second division, the Jan. 30 announcement that the next Top League season would feature 16 teams seems to rule that out.

Originally a one-off between the top university side and the top corporate team, the All-Japan Championship has undergone a number of changes in recent years.

Twenty-two sides took part in the competition in 2004 before it was reduced to eight for three years. It was then expanded in different formats to 10 teams until 2015 before this year's shortened season saw a one-off between Top League champions Panasonic Wild Knights and the top collegiate side Teikyo University.

When asked if he would like this year's format to remain in place, Panasonic coach Robbie Deans said the players liked the "brevity of it."

"But it's an interesting conundrum. Giving a university side the chance to be national champion in one outing, I'm not sure. But the Japan Cup has so much history we need to keep it in the mix, perhaps under a new format that is being discussed."

That new format is believed to be a four-team affair featuring the top three sides in the Top League and the university champions.

Among the other topics believed to be discussed Thursday are the interim coach for the Brave Blossoms and the head coach of Junior Japan, who are scheduled to take part in the World Rugby Pacific Challenge from March 8-21.

==Kyodo

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