Japan's Top League is hoping to lure England stars Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje as it pursues its soaring ambition of becoming the world's leading rugby competition, its chairman told AFP.
The well-heeled league has swelled its ranks of foreign players since the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, with New Zealand's two-time World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett chief among them.
Australia captain Michael Hooper and former All Blacks skipper Kieran Read are both at Toyota Verblitz, while New Zealand scrum-half TJ Perenara is playing for the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
No fewer than six of South Africa's World Cup-winning squad are playing in Japan, where teams are bankrolled by leading companies.
But the Top League, long a destination for southern hemisphere stars on lucrative, short-term contracts, is now looking to European players as it attempts to rise above France's Top 14 and England's Premiership.
"We want to become the top league in the world," league chairman Osamu Ota told AFP.
"It won't happen straight away, but we have a clear vision and we're going forward step by step."
England captain Farrell and second row Itoje both play for Saracens, who were relegated from the Premiership last season as punishment for repeated salary cap breaches.
George Kruis quit Saracens for Japan last year, while fellow England international Alex Goode is on loan from the London club.
"I'd be really happy if players like Owen Farrell and Itoje came here," Ota said.
"NEC signed Alex Goode and Panasonic signed George Kruis both from Saracens, so we are creating a good pipeline with agents from different countries."
Media reports say Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones has received an offer from Japan, while former Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw is playing for NTT Communications Shining Arcs.
"All Blacks and Wallabies players have been coming here since long ago, and it's a natural progression that players from the northern hemisphere would also start thinking about Japan after the World Cup," Ota said.
He added that the shorter Top League season of around five months makes it an attractive proposition, and that Japan's low crime rate, cuisine and culture are also selling points.
- 'Cool and handsome' -
Barrett certainly seems to be enjoying playing in Japan, grabbing 52 points in his first three games to lead the scoring charts.
The greater Tokyo area is under a virus state of emergency until at least March 21, and attendance at sporting events is limited to 5,000 or half capacity, whichever is fewer.
But excitement was high for Barrett's first appearance in the capital on Saturday, which lasted just 12 minutes before the game was called off because of a lightning storm.
"I love him -- he's an amazing player," Suntory fan Michiko Kuramoto told AFP before kick-off.
"I saw him playing at the World Cup, and I thought he was so cool and handsome and a great player, so I became a fan. I was surprised when I heard he was coming here."
The pandemic forced last year's Top League season to be abandoned after six rounds, and Japan have not played since losing to South Africa in their debut World Cup quarter-final in 2019.
A Covid-19 outbreak also delayed the start of the current Top League season by a month.
But Ota believes it is not too late to capitalise on the World Cup momentum, as the partly amateur Top League prepares to relaunch next season with a more professional structure.
"The benchmark for leagues is the Top 14," he said.
"That's the target we're aiming for. We're studying the best parts of the Top 14 and the Premiership, and we want to keep progressing."