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All Blacks and Japan to play more often after landmark deal

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) – The All Blacks and Japan will play regular test matches under an agreement signed by the New Zealand and Japanese rugby unions which might also see a faltering first step toward a global club competition.

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the unions will see both countries explore opportunities for New Zealand-based Super Rugby franchises to play matches against clubs from the Japan League One professional competition.

Those matches will occur outside the current window for Super Rugby Pacific, which involves Fijian Drua, Moana Pasifika and five clubs each from Australia and New Zealand. A team from Japan and leading franchises from South Africa formerly participated in the Super Rugby competition but didn’t return after the pandemic shutdown.

If the club matches in Japan are successful and other countries such as Australia seek to participate, it could provide an early framework for a global club tournament.

In the meantime, the two nations have committed to scheduling more mid-year matches between the New Zealand All Blacks and Maori All Blacks and the Japan test team and Japan XV over the next three years.

Japan’s Atsushi Sakate tackles England’s Alex Lozowski. PHOTO: AP

The three-time World Cup champion All Blacks and Japan have met in only five official test matches since rugby became professional in 1995, most recently last year when the All Blacks won 38-31.

New Zealand sevens and women’s teams also are likely to play their Japan counterparts more often. The Japan women’s team might also be able to play in New Zealand’s provincial and Super Rugby tournaments.

“The MoU provides us with opportunities for our Teams in Black, commercial partners and other professional teams and competitions to work more closely together,” NZR chief executive Mark Robinson said yesterday. “The intention is for teams across the spectrum to play more regular matches while also looking at how our men’s and women’s competitions could work together in the longer term.”

Japan rugby union chairman Kensuke Iwabuchi said he hopes the agreement will help to grow rugby in Asia. “In working more closely together, NZR and JRFU acknowledge the importance of maintaining and respecting the heritage, competitiveness and commercial operations of existing rugby competitions played in Japan and New Zealand or involving teams from Japan and New Zealand,” he said.

A number of leading New Zealand players already have played in Japan League One or will play there after the World Cup in France later this year. All Blacks playmakers Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga both will join Japanese clubs when the world tournament is over.

The new agreement may make it easier for New Zealand players to take advantage of opportunities to play in Japan.

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