Boom and bust: All Black Sam Cane joins power shift to Japan amid losses, bankruptcies in UK, Australia, New Zealand

At the same time, the picture for professional rugby is challenging in many other countries.

In England, two powerful clubs – Wasps and Worcester Warriors – have collapsed financially and closed down.

Losses by Premiership Rugby in Britain have doubled in the past year to 36 million pounds. Many individual clubs are heavily in debt.

New Zealand Rugby had a financial deficit of NZ$47 million (US$29 million) in 2023 and is expected to make a loss again this season.

Rugby Australia made a A$9.2 million (US$6.4 million) loss last year and has debts of almost A$90 million.

The French Top 14 competition and teams so far remain profitable, mainly with the support of wealthy backers.

Japan Rugby League One, currently in its third year, continues to strengthen in the wake of the country hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The response to the league has been positive from fans, broadcasters, sponsors and corporate team owners, and foreign players.

“What I’m hearing from the foreign players is that they are enjoying the playing environment here and also liking the environment for their families,” JRLO chief operating officer Hajime Shoji said.

“The supporting companies also are very happy to observe the increasing enthusiasm for the high level of the games. Therefore, we are meeting the expectations of Japanese corporations, existing ones and new ones.”

Long-serving All Blacks forward Sam Cane is among the elite foreign players who have sampled the league in Japan while taking a break from their national or domestic rugby commitments. Cane announced earlier this week that he had asked for a release from the last year of his New Zealand Rugby contract, 2025, to take up a three-year deal with Tokyo-based Suntory Sungoliath.

The high-profile players are attracting bigger crowds. More than one million fans have attended League One matches so far this season, up from 750,000 last year, with the semi-finals and final still to be played.

Crowds of around 18,000 are expected to attend semi-finals on Saturday and Sunday – attendance is limited by stadium capacity – and more than 50,000 are likely to attend the following week’s final at the 68,000-seat National Stadium.

“The target for this year was 900,000 and to have 1.1 million by the end of the season will have well exceeded that target. Our aspiration or high expectation is for a continued increase,” JRLO chairman Genichi Tamatsuka said.

The next phase for the league may involve further expansion.

“We divide our [development] into three phases,” Tamatsuka said, outlining a nine-year plan in three three-year stages. “We are now finishing the first phase. [We] should sit together review these first three years and review what was good, what should be improved and what were the problems for the teams’ perspectives.”

“Rugby’s growth is strong in the Asia-Pacific region and we want to make League One the centre of the Asia-Pacific.

“We are going in a good direction and next year is going to be exciting again.”


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