Coach Robbie Deans optimistic ahead of Japan’s Premier League final

Japan’s new rugby competition will have its first final on Sunday, ushering in a new era with a contest between teams whose exploits echo the history of professional rugby in the country.

Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights will take on Suntory Sungoliath in front of a likely full house at Tokyo’s National Stadium in the final of Japan League One, the biggest and best successor to the old Japan Top League.

Both teams have won five titles, half of those contested in the 20 years of the old league. They met in the Top League farewell final last year when the Wild Knights beat Sungoliath 31-26 in front of a crowd reduced by COVID to 4,000. The Wild Knights beat Sungoliath 31-17 in a regular season that was also disrupted by the pandemic.

Former All Blacks fullback and Wallabies head coach Robbie Deans will attempt to win his fifth title as Wild Knights coach on Sunday.

He leads a team that has won its last 31 games in two consecutive seasons. Players such as England lock George Kruis or Wallabies center Marika Koroibete, who joined the Wild Knights after the 2019 World Cup, have never played in a losing Knights formation.

“I had no idea what the streak was,” Deans said. “To be frank, I have no interest in that and the good thing is I don’t think the players have it either. They love their jobs, they’re good at coaching. I don’t want to say that, but they watch it week to week and any challenges that come their way, they do their best to face them and manage them.

Deans sees the final restoring the rugby craze in Japan that grew during the 2019 World Cup which Japan hosted and the pandemic briefly subsided.

“Before COVID, rugby was at such a level in Japan,” Deans said. “In our first game after the World Cup (2019) we played against Toyota and the Toyota Stadium and we had 37,000 people, so there is a lot of interest here. As things go will improve within the community, this game will certainly generate a lot of interest.

Deans believes League One has continued – perhaps even accelerated – the growth in profile and level of professional rugby in Japan. It attracted many of the best players in the world not at the end but at the peak of their careers.

The league now has great visibility outside of Japan and has given new credibility to Japanese rugby.

“I’ve been here for a number of years now and every year it goes up, up, up,” Deans said. “It’s been unrecognizable since my debut. I think that’s probably what’s sparking interest outside of Japan. There are many recognized and well-known players currently playing here, current internationals, players who would be Super Rugby or Premiership players if they were in any other part of the world.

The next step, Deans believes, must be a cross-border competition between Japanese clubs and those in Super Rugby or British and European competitions. The sticking point is the current and busy international calendar.

“I see it as inevitable, as inevitable as possible,” he said. “The conversation about the international window started in 2001 when I was with the All Blacks and they still haven’t solved the problem.

“So, yes, it is inevitable. There is a genuine desire to do so, but there are so many political parties that need to be considered that there is nothing inevitable about timing.

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