All the World Cup Boks and All Blacks on display in Japan
SEASON PREVIEW: Forty-four days after the World Cup concluded, 14 of the players who featured during South Africa’s thrilling one-point victory over New Zealand in the Final will suit up for club duty in Japan.
Seven of the Springboks and seven of the All Blacks are returning to action as Japan’s League One kicks off in Tokyo.
The third edition of Japan’s new domestic championship, which runs from next Saturday’s opening round through until the final on May 6, begins with a full set of matches, kicking off on December 9.
It starts with the visit of the newly promoted Heat to the 2018 Japanese champions, Kobe Steelers.
Both teams have former international coaches in charge, with former Wallaby boss Dave Rennie having arrived to take the reins at Kobe, while Heat have installed the recent Italian mentor Kieran Crowley as their new boss.
The league’s growing profile, and rapidly improving playing standard, is becoming increasingly attractive for the game’s elite, among both players and coaches, with many of the players who have joined Japanese clubs, continuing their international careers with their home countries.
Stellar international player intake
The class of 2023-24 is headed by 2023 World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea, with the All Black joined in Japan by six of his test teammates, alongside seven of South Africa’s victorious back-to-back World Cup champion squad.
The players are:
South Africa: Franco Mostert (Heat), Pieter Steph du Toit (Verblitz), Faf de Klerk (Eagles), Damien de Allende (Wild Knights), Jesse Kriel (Eagles), Cheslin Kolbe (Sungoliath), Kwagga Smith (Blue Revs).
New Zealand: Brodie Retallick (Steelers), Shannon Frizell (Brave Lupus), Ardie Savea (Kobe Steelers), Sam Cane (Sungoliath), Aaron Smith (Verblitz), Richie Mo’unga (Brave Lupus), Beauden Barrett (Verblitz).
International stars litter the league’s 24 clubs, playing alongside promising Japanese players, and a cast of non-capped foreign talent who have joined clubs in League One to further their careers.
Several players who previously held this status qualified for international play on residency status, going on to represent Japan at the World Cup.
Despite a debut season heavily impacted by Covid, League One surpassed a million spectators last term, with a new champion crowned as the Frans Ludeke-coached Spears edged the defending champion Wild Knights by two points in a thrilling final played in front of 42,000 people.
The Spears, who have replaced their injured star South African Malcolm Marx, with All Black hooker Dane Coles, will start their title defence as one of the favourites, especially as they have added outstanding Wales fullback Liam Williams to an electric three-quarter line that includes last year’s breakout star; 17-try freshman wing Haruto Kida.
While the Spears also boast last season’s leading point-scorer in Wallaby Bernard Foley, many of their closest rivals from in and around the play-offs have shaken up their squads in a bid to launch a title challenge.
The two who have made the biggest moves sat just outside of the semifinals last term, with fifth-placed Brave Lupus bringing in All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and back row forward Shannon Frizell, while sixth finisher, Verblitz, also ‘shopped’ in New Zealand, picking up scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flyhalf/fullback Beauden Barrett.
Both have played more than 100 Tests for New Zealand, ranking fifth and sixth respectively, in terms of overall appearances for the All Blacks.
Barrett played for Sungoliath in the final Top League three years ago, as did his international teammate and fellow centurion Brodie Retallick, who has returned to Kobe after playing nine games for the club in the disrupted 2020 and 2021 seasons.
Savea has joined Kobe on a one-year-deal with much expected of the club, who finished just one spot above the Replacement Battle last time.
Six Nations-winning Wales coach Wayne Pivac (Green Rockets) has also signed up for service in Japan.
His arrival, alongside that of Rennie and Crowley, adds to arguably the most experienced and successful coaching brigade to be found at club level anywhere.
It also includes World Cup winners Steve Hansen (Verblitz) and Wayne Smith (Kobe Steelers), former Wallabies and Crusaders supremo Robbie Deans (Wild Knights), South Africa’s most successful Super Rugby boss Frans Ludeke (Spears), and the experienced duo of Todd Blackadder (Brave Lupus) and Johan Ackermann (D-Rocks), who have coached in both Super Rugby and the Premiership (England).
Deans, who was denied his sixth Japanese title in last year’s decider, fields an experienced squad at Saitama, which includes 11 of Japan’s World Cup muster, alongside the South African pair of double World Cup winner Damien de Allende, his 2019 teammate Lood de Jager, and wrecking ball Australian wing Marika Koroibete.
Arch-rivals Sungoliath, who missed last year’s final after having featured in the previous two deciders, have responded to that disappointment by bringing in World Cup-winner Cheslin Kolbe.
The South African star is joined in Fuchu by Wales’ main man from the historic win over the Wallabies at that tournament, former Cardiff Blues and Ospreys flyhalf Gareth Anscombe.
Last year’s big improvers Yokohama Canon Eagles, who returned to the semi-finals after a long absence, when they finished third, have retained the services of Springbok backs Faf de Klerk and Jesse Kriel, while picking up Wallaby second row forward Matthew Phillip.
Shizuoka Blue Revs are also backing star power to rise from mid-table, with the dual New Zealand/Tonga international Charles Piutau arriving from Bristol Bears to play alongside their main man, co-captain, Kwagga Smith.
Such has been the Springbok World Cup winner’s impact in Japan, the back row forward has been voted player of the tournament by his peers for the last two seasons, even though the Blue Revs didn’t feature in the semifinals of either.
After being the team to stop Saitama’s incredible 47-match, five-year, unbeaten run last season, the Blue Revs, who drew twice and lost five other matches by eight points or less, will have loftier ambitions this time.
So too will Kintetsu Liners if they can keep Quade Cooper on the field.
The mercurial Wallaby star, who will be out to prove he still has an international future after being controversially omitted from Australia’s World Cup squad, showed his x-factor when rushed back from long-term injury in the nick of time to preserve the club’s Division One status in last season’s Replacement Battle.
Having won just once in 15 matches without Cooper, Kintetsu sprang a major upset by comfortably despatching the unbeaten Division Two winners Urayasu D-Rocks in the relegation series.
Division Two: Kerevi ‘Rocks’ Urayasu
The biggest movement in Divisions Two and Three has seen Wallaby ace Samu Kerevi join his former test teammate Israel Folau at D-Rocks, after ending a four-year association with Sungoliath.
Kerevi joins a club that will be desperate to take the next step after missing out on promotion in its first season as an entity, having swept all before it on the run to the Division Two title.
Prior to the Replacement Battle, D-Rocks averaged 49 points per game, but they may find it harder this time, with the Green Rockets especially looking dangerous under Pivac’s charge.
Division Three: Oceans Apart with Dolphins v Sharks
Former All Black-turned Samoa international flyhalf Lima Sopoaga is the most high-profile name to join a club in Division Three, hooking up with the Shimizu Corporation Koto Blue Sharks as they bid for an immediate bounce back from last season’s surprise relegation.
It won’t be easy though, with Hino Red Dolphins also in the section, returning after they withdrew midway through last season’s Division Two competition.
The Red Dolphins have retained most of last season’s roster, including the former All Black and Tongan World Cup scrumhalf Augustin Pulu alongside the towering former Wallaby second row forward Rory Arnold.