Japan in discussions with Australia, New Zealand over provincial rugby tournament

Super Rugby could be set for yet another structural change and a return to Asia after it was revealed that discussions have taken place around a new tournament that would pit leading Japanese Top League clubs against those from New Zealand and Australia.

As the lack of competition from Australia's five franchises in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman remains firmly in the spotlight - the teams are yet to win a game in the first two rounds - just what direction provincial rugby takes in the region continues to be hotly debated.

New Zealand Rugby remains wary of running another edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa and thus is pushing for a 12- or 10-team Super Rugby competition from next year, while Rugby Australia administrators are weighing up the pros and cons of such a tournament against the successful Super Rugby AU followed by the five-week Trans-Tasman series where its teams are struggling.

But all parties agree on the opportunity for growth in Asia, specifically Japan, with several Australian franchises having already formed operating alliances with Top League clubs who will move into a fully professional competition from next year.

Speaking on a conference call on Tuesday evening, Japanese Top League chairman Osama Otu confirmed discussions were already underway with his Australian and New Zealand counterparts.

"We haven't got any details about this topic yet, but for sure the discussions are under way as to the cross-border competition," Ota said through the use of an interpreter.

"If there is such a competition we would love to participate in it.

"But...lots of discussions will be needed. And I can also say that the JRFU have been in conversation with many other unions, including New Zealand Rugby and also Australian rugby. Once everything has been fixed we'll make an announcement as soon as possible.

"I personally would look forward to that opportunity coming in the near future. We'd love to participate in such a competition."

It is believed that the tournament would run after the New Zealand-led fully unified Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition, though a European Cup style format, which is spliced through the domestic northern hemisphere competitions in two-week blocks, could also be an option.

An RA spokesperson confirmed to ESPN that preliminary discussions about a cross-border competition with Japan had taken place, but that it was "very early days".

Such a setup has the support of Dave Rennie, given it could help alleviate the player drain from Australia and New Zealand, the Wallabies coach recently admitting that bringing Japan into the provincial fold in some fashion would likely remove the need for the Giteau Law.

Rennie has repeatedly referenced the "phenomenal" sums of money players are being offered in Japan, with Marika Koroibete near certain to follow the trend and depart Australian rugby after this season.

While Koroibete would still be available under the amendment made to the Giteau Law last year, Rennie has so far shown little inclination at selecting overseas based players.

A competition that pitted Japan-based Australian players against the 10 existing Super Rugby Trans-Tasman franchises could change all that.

"To be honest, what would be a great scenario long term is that the Japanese clubs come into Super Rugby, so now we could actually pick from that competition because we're comparing apples with apples," Rennie told reporters recently.

"It would be brilliant."

Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper has recently returned home from his six-month Japanese stint while All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett, Sam Whitelock and TJ Perenara have also enjoyed one- or two-year Top League spells as they seek to maximise their earning potential.

Allowing the free movement of players throughout the three countries, and not prohibiting them from Test selection, would also likely help to ensure the competition would be competitive.

Still, Panasonic Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans says his title-winning team would hold up well against the current Australian franchises, at the very least.

"I think there would be an appetite for it, particularly with the way the season is structured," Deans said on the same Top League conference call.

"You'd have a domestic competition concluded and a domestic champion, or ranking if you like. And then you go across border, so your support base would follow that with interest.

"Obviously there could be discrepancies in terms of level but that's nothing different from what we are witnessing at the moment [in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman].

"I think we'd be competitive in an abbreviated format. There's no doubt that anyone who goes toe to toe with the New Zealand franchise is going to find it hard.

"We would need to develop more depth to be able to do that over an extended competition but that could come in time.

"In the first instance, the optimal way to interact would be post domestic comp."

With the Rugby Championship schedule finally confirmed last week, RA and NZR administrators have made Super Rugby's future a priority with clubs keen to understand what tournaments, they will be contesting in 2022.

Despite the 0-10 record, Brad Thorn, whose Reds were comprehensively dismantled by the Crusaders, is adamant playing New Zealand opposition at regular intervals is the only way forward for Australian teams.

"I've said all year we need to play the New Zealanders if you want to get better," Thorn said after Saturday night's 63-28 hiding.

"Tonight you get a punch in the face, but you sit in the locker room afterwards and think, 'that's it, that's where we want to be'.

"We need to play these guys, we want to play them and we want to win.

"But there's a team that's far superior tonight, and you've got to wear that... welcome to world-class, now you've got to get in the ring with them."