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Japan's Top League continues to add big names despite COVID-19 hit

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Tokyo (AFP)

England full-back Alex Goode last week became the latest in a long-line of international stars to join side in Japan's Top League.

South Africa's Malcolm Marx and Makazole Mapimpi, who lifted the Webb Ellis trophy as Asia hosted the tournament for the first time last year, New Zealand fly-half Beauden Barrett and Australia centre Samu Kerevi have also signed deals to feature in the 16-team top-flight.

Goode has signed a one-year loan deal with NEC Green Rockets as has Saracens team-mate George Kruis with Panasonic Wild Knights with the English side relegated for salary cap breaches.

According to one agent, Japan will continue to be attractive to the world's best especially with the lower impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the country's outfits backed by multinational corporations compared to clubs in Europe.

"They are run by companies which compared to the situation in UK and France where clubs are struggling financially since rugby has been closed down, obviously companies have been able to continue and Japan hasn't had a lockdown in the same vain as England or Australia," Jamie Coventry, who represents Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch, told AFP.

"The economy has been taking over, that has probably helped them to retain the players and pay them the same sort of value that they have done so in the past, but I wouldn't say it has significantly gone up, it has remained as always," he added.

More than 58 million people watched Japan beat Scotland to clinch a place in last year's World Cup quarter-finals.

Tokyo-based consultant Nicholas van Santen said the tournament caught the attention of the local public and will help the domestic league grow.

"Among Japanese rugby fans there is a far greater awareness and appreciation of Northern Hemisphere talent," he told AFP.

"The World Cup has shown Japan to be arguably the largest domestic rugby market in the world in terms of its addressable audience," he added.

This season's top-flight was stopped in March as New Zealander Joel Everson tested positive for cocaine.

Next term's competition will be the final in its current format with plans to increase the amount of teams and create three-tiers of competition with sides aligned to cities or areas while keeping their sponsors.

"If the Top League can still offer decent money to players moving forward, its attractiveness is only sure to increase," van Santen added.

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