TOKYO: The Japan Rugby Football Union said on Friday it will launch a three-tier professional league from January 2022 in a bid to raise the domestic game to a new level, though the changes fell short of the dramatic shake-up some had been calling for.
The new format, which has yet to be given a name, will replace the current corporate rugby structure which features a 16-team Top League and nine-team Top Challenge League.
The revamped league will see 25 teams across three divisions, with 12 top tier clubs split into two conferences.
There will be promotion and relegation play-offs at the end of each season plus a championship game between the winners of the top division conferences.
"We want it to be the world’s best league," Mayumi Taniguchi, director of the new league's development office, told reporters.
"We want to improve the Japan national team and Japanese players. ... We also want more competitive games."
A shake-up of the domestic game was first mooted after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, when hosts Japan reached the quarter-finals for the first time off the back of an unprecedented wave of public support.
Further calls were made for changes when the Sunwolves, Japan's sole representative club in the Super Rugby competition, were disbanded last year, giving rise to fears that Japanese players would not get exposure to the game at the top level.
The season would begin in January to align with Southern Hemisphere competitions, allowing the top Japanese teams to arrange games against international opposition.
JRFU Chairman Kensuke Iwabuchi stressed, however, they were still only in the discussion phase with unions and leagues outside Japan.
"The international calendar and league calendar are uncertain because of COVID-19 so we haven’t been able to confirm matches yet," added Iwabuchi, adding that cross-border matches may not be arranged in time for 2022.
"We want to set the stage for Japan to compete at a world class level."
The start of this season's Top League competition was delayed on Thursday following COVID-19 outbreaks at six clubs.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)