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|Current season or competition:|
2021 Top League
|Number of teams||16|
|Champions||Kobelco Steelers (2nd title)|
|Most titles||Toshiba Brave Lupus & Suntory Sungoliath (5 titles)|
|Related competition||Top Challenge League|
The Top League is a rugby union competition in Japan. It is the highest level of professional rugby competition in the country. The Japan Rugby Football Union created the competition in 2003, by absorbing the Japan Company Rugby Football Championship, to drive up the overall standard and popularity of the sport and improve the results of the Japan national rugby union team. The chief architect of the league was Hiroaki Shukuzawa who strongly felt the urgency of improving Japanese domestic company rugby to a professional level which would allow Japan to compete more convincingly at Rugby World Cups.
It is an industrial league, where many players are employees of their company and the teams are all owned by major companies. While the competition is known for paying high salaries, only world-class foreign players and a small number of Japanese players play fully professionally, which means most of the players still play in an amateur capacity. The delayed 2021 season is expected to the be the final season of the Top League, with the JRFU looking to adopt a professional three-tier system from 2022. More details about the new structure was announced to the media in January 2021. Featuring 25 teams, the 12 top-tier clubs would be split into two conferences, with seven teams competing in division two and six in division three.
The first season in 2003–04 featured 12 teams. The league was expanded to 14 teams in 2006–07 and 16 teams in 2013–14. The Top League is played during the off-season of the Super Rugby, Therefore, many full-time foreign professionals from Southern Hemisphere countries have played in the Top League, notably Tony Brown, George Gregan and Dan Carter. In the 2010s, salaries in the Top League have risen to become some of the highest in the rugby world; in 2012, South Africa's Jaque Fourie, now with Kobelco Steelers, was widely reported to be the world's highest-paid player.
- 2014–15: Playoff tournament sponsored as the Lixil Cup.
- 2014–15: Video referee (TMO) decisions introduced for all league games.
- 2013–14: The league was expanded from 14 to 16 teams.
- 2009–10: One of the three foreign players allowed on the field must have played, or be eligible, for Japan.
- 2008–09: Three foreign players per team are allowed on the field at one time, one more than previously. Additionally, one member of an Asian union (such as South Korean Kim Kwang Mo for Sanyo Wild Knights) is permitted to take the field for each team.
- 2008–09: Video referee (TMO) decisions were introduced for the Microsoft Cup play-off tournament.
- 2007–08: A timekeeping system independent of the referee was introduced.
- 2006–07: The league was expanded from 12 to 14 teams.
A second tier Top League Challenge Series was also introduced in 2003. Between 2003–04 and 2016–17, teams from three regional leagues would qualify to this post-season competition, in which they could either win promotion to the next season's Top League, or qualify to promotion play-off matches.
The regional leagues are:
- Top East League, administered by the Japan East Rugby Football Union
- Top West League, administered by the Kansai Rugby Football Union
- Top Kyūshū League, administered by the Kyūshū Rugby Football Union
Sixteen teams: 2012 onwards
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- Kintetsu Liners
- Kobelco Steelers
- Munakata Sanix Blues
- NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes
- NEC Green Rockets
- NTT Communications Shining Arcs
- Ricoh Black Rams
- Sanyo Wild Knights
- Suntory Sungoliath
- Toshiba Brave Lupus
- Toyota Verblitz
- Toyota Industries Shuttles
- Honda Heat
- Yamaha Jubilo
- Hino Red Dolphins
- Mitsubishi Dynaboars
Fourteen teams: 2006 to 2012
Ninth season (2011–12)
NTT Shining Arcs and Yamaha Jubilo which won their 2005 promotion/relegation play-offs (Irekaesen) against Canon Eagles and Kyuden Voltex to retain their places for the 2011–12 season. The following teams were in the league:
The top 4 sides of the regular season (Suntory, Toshiba, Sanyo, and NEC) competed in the 2012 Top League Champions Cup knock-out tournament for the Top League title at Chichibu, Tokyo. Suntory defeated Sanyo 47–28 in the final to win the title. Both teams met again a few weeks later in the final of the 49th All-Japan Rugby Football Championship.
Additionally, in the Wildcard play-offs, the Top League teams ranked 5th and 8th (Kintetsu Liners and Yamaha Jubilo) played each other at Hanazono, Osaka, as did the teams ranked 6th and 7th (Kobe Steelers and Ricoh Black Rams), with the winners (Kobe and Yamaha) also qualifying for the All-Japan Rugby Football Championship.
Eighth season (2010–11)
Honda Heat and Kyuden Voltex were automatically relegated at the completion of the 2009–10 season for finishing 13th and 14th. Toyota Industries Shuttles and NTT Communications Shining Arcs won promotion through the Top Challenge series. The following teams were in the league:
The top 4 sides (Toshiba, Sanyo, Toyota and Suntory) from the regular season competed in a knock out tournament to fight for the Top League title. In the final, Sanyo defeated Suntory 28–23.
Seventh season (2009–10)
IBM Big Blue and Yokogawa Atlastars were automatically relegated at the completion of the 2008–9 season for finishing 13th and 14th. Ricoh and Honda won promotion through the Top Challenge series. Kyuden and Sanix retained their places in Top League when they won their respective promotion and relegation play-offs. The following teams were in the league:
Sixth season (2008–9)
Kintetsu Liners returned to the league, and Yokogawa Denki were promoted for the first time (and renamed Yokogawa Musashino Atlastars in the off season). They replaced Ricoh Black Rams and Mitsubishi Sagamihara DynaBoars. The following teams were in the league:
Fifth season (2007–8)
The top four teams (Sanyo, Suntory, Toyota and Toshiba) played in the fifth Microsoft Cup to decide the league champion. Suntory beat Sanyo 14–10 in the final to become the 2007–08 champions. Mitsubishi (14th) and Ricoh (13th) were automatically relegated.
Fourth season (2006–7)
The number of teams was increased from 12 to 14. Coca-Cola West Red Sparks became the second Kyushu-based team in the Top League. IBM returned to the league.
The top four teams in the league played in the Microsoft Cup which was officially integrated into the league from this season as the "Top League Play-off Tournament Microsoft Cup". Toshiba won the cup and also won the All-Japan Championship. Secom and World (13th and 14th) were automatically relegated, to be replaced by Kyuden Voltex, the third team from Kyushu to enter the league, and Mitsubishi Sagamihara DynaBoars from Kanto.
Twelve teams 2003 to 2006
Third season (2005–6)
After the pre-season 2005 Challenge series, Secom and Sanix returned after a year out of the league, replacing Kintetsu and IBM. The following 12 teams competed in the third season:
Toshiba again won both the league round-robin and the Microsoft Cup knockout competition contested by the top 8 teams after the regular season. Coca-Cola West Japan (now Coca-Cola West Red Sparks) gained promotion to the League at the end of the season. IBM also gained promotion to return to the league.
Second season (2004–5)
Following the 2004 Challenge series with IBM and Toyota being promoted, the following 12 teams competed in the second season:
Toshiba won both the league round-robin and the Microsoft Cup knockout competition contested by the top 8 teams after the regular season. The eleventh and twelfth teams (Kintetsu and IBM) were automatically relegated, and the ninth and tenth placed teams (World and Ricoh) had to win their 2005 promotion and relegation play-offs (Irekaesen) to stay in the Top League, which they did.
First season (2003–4)
The first season began with 12 teams:
Toshiba won the inaugural Top League title by finishing on top of the round-robin competition. The top eight teams qualified for the inaugural Microsoft Cup. Toshiba went on to lose the final of Microsoft Cup to NEC, but the cup was considered a separate competition to the Top League prior to 2007. Secom and Sanix were relegated at the end of the season. IBM and Toyota were promoted.
Notable foreign players
The following foreign players that have played in the Top League have either won or been nominated for a major IRB award, played in a Rugby World Cup, played for a combined-nations touring side, or captained their national team.
|Kieran Read (2007–present)||– 2011, 2015 (World Champions) and 2019 World Cups|
|Ben Smith (rugby union) (2007–present)||– 2015 (World Champions) and 2019 World Cup|
|Aaron Cruden (2010–present)||– 2011 (World Champions) World Cup|
|Beauden Barrett (2011–present)||– 2015 (World Champions) and 2019 World Cup|
|TJ Perenara (2012–present)||– 2015 (World Champions) and 2019 World Cup|
|Sam Whitelock (2010–present)||– 2011, 2015 (World Champions) and 2019 World Cups|
|Matt Todd (2011–present)||– 2019 World Cup|
|Brodie Retallick (2012–present)||– 2015 (World Champions) and 2019 World Cups|
|Dan Carter (2018–2020)||– 2003 and 2007 World Cups, 2011 and 2015 (World Champions)|
|Ma'a Nonu (2011–2020)||– 2003, 2007 and 2011 (World Champions)|
|Sonny Bill Williams (2012-2020)||– 2011 and 2015 World Cups (World Champions)|
|Ryan Crotty (2009-2020)||– 2019 World Cup|
|Jerome Kaino (2004-2018)||– 2011 and 2015 World Cups (World Champions)|
|Rico Gear (1999-2010)||– 20-capped New Zealand international|
|Leon MacDonald (1997-2010)||– 2003 and 2007 World Cup|
|Reuben Thorne (1996-2009)||– 1999, 2003 and 2007 World Cup|
|Jerry Collins (1999-2015)||– 2003 and 2007 World Cup|
|Tony Brown (1999-2011)||– 1999 World Cup|
|Quade Cooper (2006–present)||– 2011 World Cup|
|Adam Ashley-Cooper (2017–2018)||– 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cup|
|Berrick Barnes (2013–present)||– 2007, and 2011 World Cup|
|Matt Cockbain (2004–2006)||– 1999 (World Champions) and 2003 World Cup|
|David Pocock (2016–2018)||– 2011 and 2015 World Cup, 2010 and 2011 IRB Player of the Year|
|Bernard Foley (2015–2016)||– 2015 World Cup|
|Matt Giteau (2017–2020)||– 2003, 2007, and 2015 World Cup|
|Mark Gerrard (2010–2018)||– 2003, and 2007 World Cup|
|George Gregan (2008–2011)||– 1999 (World Champions), 2003 (Captain) and 2007 (Captain) World Cup|
|George Smith (2011–2018)||– 2003 and 2007 World Cup and 2001 IRB Player of the Year nominee|
|Digby Ioane (2017–2019)||– 2011 World Cup|
|Toutai Kefu (2004–2010)||– 1999 (World Champions) and 2003 World Cup|
|Stephen Larkham (2008–2011)||– 1999 (World Champions), 2003 and 2007 World Cup|
|Nathan Grey (2003–2011)||– 1999 (World Champions) and 2003 World Cup|
|Ben McCalman (2015–2016)||– 2011 and 2015 World Cup|
|Sean McMahon (2017–present)||– 2015 World Cup|
|Wycliff Palu (2016–2017)||– 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cup|
|Joe Roff (2005–2006)||– 1999 (World Champions) and 2003 World Cup|
|Craig Wing (2010–2013)||– Australian Rugby League international|
|Colin Yukes||– 2003 and 2007 World Cup|
|James Haskell (2011–2012)||– 2011 World Cup|
|Geoff Parling (2017–2018)||– 2012 British and Irish Lions|
|Kele Leawere||– 2003 and 2007 World Cups|
|Nemani Nadolo||– 2015 World Cup|
|Marika Vunibaka||– 1999 and 2003 World Cup|
|Seilala Mapusua||– 2007 and 2011 World Cup and 2004, 2006, 2008 Pacific Islanders|
|Semo Sititi||– 1999, 2003 and 2007 (Captain) World Cup and 2004, 2006, 2008 Pacific Islanders|
|Alesana Tuilagi||– 2007 and 2011 World Cup and 2006 Pacific Islanders|
|Thinus Delport (2008–2010)||– 2003 World Cup|
|Jacque Fourie||– 2006 and 2009 IRB Player of the Year nominee|
|Fourie du Preez (2011–2016)||– 2007 (World Champions) and 2011 World Cup|
|Danie Rossouw||– 2003, 2007 (World Champions) and 2011 World Cup|
|Jaco van der Westhuyzen||– 2003 (Captain) World Cup|
|Pierre Hola||– 2003 and 2007 World Cup|
|Hale T-Pole||– 2007 World Cup|
|Sione Tu'ipulotu||– 1999 and 2007 World Cup|
|Todd Clever||– 2003, 2007 and 2011 World Cup; former USA captain|
|Mike Hercus (2008–2009)||– 2003 and 2007 World Cup|
|Shane Williams||– 2003, 2007, 2011 World Cup and 2005, 2009 and 2013 Lions|
- Sport in Japan
- Rugby in Japan
- Top Challenge League (Tier 2)
- Japan national rugby union team
- Japan Company Rugby Football Championship
- Major League Rugby
- "Framework of Entry Conditions to New League". JRFU. 1 July 2020. Retrieved 22 February 2021.
- "Japan's new rugby union league to launch in 2022". Sports Pro Media. 18 January 2021. Retrieved 22 February 2021.
- "The 4.25 million pound question". ESPN Scrum. 24 May 2012. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
- "Top League to introduce new officiating system this season". The Japan Times. 21 August 2014. Archived from the original on 13 January 2015.
- Daily Yomiuri, 28 February 2008
- "Japan to add second-tier rugby league in 2017". The Japan Times. 19 August 2016. Archived from the original on 6 January 2017. Retrieved 6 January 2017.