Japan Top League bring in more Springboks
PREVIEW: Japan Rugby League One kicks off in Tokyo on Saturday with several of the heavy hitters squaring off to start the new season.
Defending Champions, the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights host Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, while Sunday’s matches are highlighted by the clash between two of last season’s top four; beaten finalists Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath and semi-finalists Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo-Bay.
Springboks stars Faf De Klerk, Marcell Coetzee, Pieter Steph du Toit, and Damian de Allende – and South African midfield Burger Odendaal and SP Marais – are some of the names that will be in action this weekend.
The first fixture on Saturday sees the Black Rams meet the newly promoted Dynaboars hoping for a jump start to the new campaign.
Coached by the former NSW Waratahs wing Peter Hewat, the Tokyo-based outfit has recruited shrewdly in the off-season, picking up former Wales international midfielder Hadleigh Parkes from Saitama, as well as second row Josh Goodhue from the (Auckland) Blues.
Back in Section One after promotion last season, the Dynaboars return sporting a fresh look.
The well-travelled Glenn Delaney heads up the new coaching team, bringing with him experience from New Zealand’s NPC and Super Rugby, as well as the United Rugby Championship, from his time in Wales.
The 59-test former Wallaby Matt To’omua also has knowledge from both hemispheres, with the clubs’ prize recruit previously on the rosters of the Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels as well as the Leicester Tigers.
Verblitz begins the campaign chasing at least a semi-final return after a below-par debut in Japan Rugby League One saw them miss out by seven log points while finishing fifth.
Director of Rugby Steve Hansen has been forced to reassemble his coaching team ahead of the new season after head coach Simon Cron departed to take over the Western Force in Super Rugby.
Verblitz has gone to New Zealand for his replacement, picking up former Otago NPC coach Ben Herring, who also brings experience from Major League Rugby in the United States.
Verblitz is resting Wille le Roux, fellow South African Pieter Steph du Toit faces a teammate from the recent Springbok tour, with loose forward Kwagga Smith the new co-captain of the Blue Revs.
The defending champions will field a settled line-up as they welcome fellow semi-finalists Brave Lupus Tokyo, with the main changes coming in the international ranks, where midfielder Damien de Allende has returned to the club, while fellow South African Lood de Jager has replaced Englishman George Kruis in the squad, although he will miss the opening day due to injury.
As well as the two Springboks, the Wild Knights were well represented on the recent Japan tour, with seven players returning, as will the previously injured Brave Blossoms flyhalf, Rikiya Matsuda, who is back after having missed the end of the last competition as well as Japan’s November internationals.
One player who skipped the November tests to be fresh for the new campaign is star winger Marika Koroibete, who terrorised international defences midyear wearing the Wallaby jersey, after having done the same earlier in 2022 during his debut season for the Wild Knights.
Having worked on the finer details of his game with Wild Knights mentor Robbie Deans, expect the Fijian-born wing to be even more damaging in his second season, which is bad news for a Brave Lupus outfit that finished fourth last term, and led the eventual champions at Kumagaya before being over-run in the second half.
Todd Blackadder has added South African midfielder Burger Odendaal from Wasps but will largely rely on the same squad that last season won 11 matches.
On Sunday, the man of all seasons (and teams) Michael Cheika gets his next project underway as the Green Rockets host the Osaka-based Liners.
The Argentina and Lebanon (rugby league) coach has been planning from afar wearing his Green Rockets’ Director of Rugby hat, but a training game win over an albeit development Saitama outfit offers hope, while the playing resources have been boosted by the arrival of the 72-test Wallaby scrumhalf Nick Phipps from London Irish, alongside the widely travelled wing Taqele Naiyaravoro.
Very much a ‘citizen of the world’, the burly Fijian wing returns to Japan having previously appeared for the Wild Knights, alongside stints with the Waratahs, Glasgow Warriors, and Northampton Saints, as well as two tests for a Cheika-coached Wallabies side.
The acquisition of the pair adds to a core of experience up front which centres around former Wales Grand Slam-winning second-row Jake Ball, and the Maori All Black representatives, hooker Ash Dixon and backrow Whetukamokamo Douglas.
Kintetsu return to the top section as Division Two champions but will be without Wallaby star Quade Cooper for at least the first part of the campaign, after the flyhalf injured his Achilles during Australia’s opening test of this year’s Rugby Championship in Argentina.
His absence will be covered by former Hurricanes’ flyhalf Jackson Garden Bachop, while the 26-cap former Scotland lock Ben Turis bolsters the tight five.
Last year’s beaten finals Tokyo Sungoliath host the third-placed Kubota Spears with both sides looking for fast starts to reinforce their claims as championship contenders.
The teams are advantaged by settled squads with the big change at Sungoliath seeing the departure of the competition’s top point-scorer from last season, All Black Damien McKenzie, who has returned to Super Rugby in New Zealand. He has been replaced by fellow All Black Aaron Cruden who transferred from Kobe.
The Spears’ charge is led by the world’s best hooker, Springbok Malcolm Marx, who can expect good support again from Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley and All Black midfielder Ryan Crotty.
Last season, Frans Ludeke’s men finished third after having their title aspirations ended in the semi-finals for the season straight year.
Although the Spears’ need to make an early statement is probably greater, Sungoliath have been their ‘kryptonite’ in recent years, with Kubota not having beaten Suntory since they returned to the premier section in 2015. Their eight straight defeats include two semi-finals.
Sixth (Canon) meets seventh (Kobe) from last season’s ladder, as both look to put the frustration of last term in the rear-view mirror, by beginning the new campaign on a bright note.
Although they won 10 matches and matched their previous best placing, the Eagles fluffed their lines at the end when a maiden semi-final appearance was a possibility. Even so, the move to Yokohama worked out well, with the team warmly received in its first year at their new base, while the playing roster continues to improve, firmly establishing the Eagles as a contender.
Springbok and Sale halfback Faf de Klerk is the biggest off-season prize, joining fellow South Africans centre Jesse Kriel, and goal-kicking whiz SP Marais as key figures. Marais, who only took up kicking duties last term after Brave Blossoms’ veteran Yu Tamura was injured, clocked a 92 percent success rate.
Kobe, who won the Top League in 2019, have brought in All Black midfielder Ngane Laumape from Stade Francais (Paris) to strengthen their backline threat.
Cruden’s move to Sungoliath clears the way for boom youngster Seungsin Lee to run the cutter from flyhalf, having made a big splash this year for Japan.
To help manage the 21-year-old’s workload, head coach Nick Holten has brought in the well-performed Beauden Waaka, who excelled for Taranaki in New Zealand’s NPC, as well as for the New England Freejacks in Major League Rugby.
Former Sharks, Ulster and Bulls backrow Marcel Coetzee is another notable signing while ex-rugby league wing Sione Tapuosi, who played for each of the Canberra Raiders and the Parramatta Eels in Australia’s NRL, is a potentially exciting addition.
Saturday and Sunday’s fixtures: