Tue 4 Jan 2022 | 09:25

Bok stars set to dominate Japan Rugby League

Bok stars set to dominate Japan Rugby League
Tue 4 Jan 2022 | 09:25
Bok stars set to dominate Japan Rugby League
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OPINION: Super Rugby Pacific is still a month-and-a-half away from kick-off, but footy fans in the Asia-Pacific corner of the globe can get their rugby fix as early as this weekend when the opening round of the new-look Japan Rugby League One kicks-off.

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The revamped competition – which was formerly known as the Top League and is now fully professional – gets underway in its fresh format on Friday when the Kubota Spears host the Wild Knights at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

That will kick-off the league, which is split into three divisions and will feature a raft of test stars both from Japan and around the rugby world.

In anticipation of the tournament kicking off, we take a look at a XV made up of the top talent set to grace the Japan Rugby League One this season.

1. Keita Inagaki

Club: Saitama Wild Knights
Age: 31
Nation: Japan
Test caps: 39

A four-time Top League title-winner with the Wild Knights, including last year, Keita Inagaki is one of Japan’s most experienced players. The Niigata-born product has played 39 test since his Brave Blossoms debut in 2014 and featured in all nine matches of Japan’s historic two World Cup campaigns in 2015 and 2019.

Honourable mentions: Craig Millar (Saitama Wild Knights), Isileli Nakajima (Kobelco Kobe Steelers)

2. Malcolm Marx

Club: Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay
Age: 27
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 46

One of the world’s premier hookers, Malcolm Marx returns to Japan for a third season of club rugby. After numerous campaigns with the Lions in Super Rugby, the 2019 World Cup winner packed his bags and joined the Shining Arcs in 2020 before switching to the Kubota Spears last year.

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Honourable mentions: Atsushi Sakate (Saitama Wild Knights), Shota Horie (Saitama Wild Knights), Ash Dixon (Green Rockets Tokatsu)

3. Koo Ji-won

Club: Kobelco Kobe Steelers
Age: 27
Nation: Japan
Test caps: 18

Another standout Japanese prop, Koo Ji-won was also part of Japan’s stunning run to the 2019 World Cup knockout stages, starting in his side’s famous wins over Ireland and Scotland, as well as their quarter-final against the Springboks. At club level, the South Korean-born tighthead was formerly a member of the Honda Heat.

Honourable mentions: Asaeli Ai Valu (Saitama Wild Knights), Paddy Ryan (Munakata Sanix Blues)

4. Patrick Tuipulotu

Club: Toyota Verblitz
Age: 28
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 41

Joining Toyota Verblitz from the Blues and New Zealand Rugby as part of a season-long sabbatical deal, Patrick Tuipulotu adds physicality and leadership to his new team’s second row. The experienced lock has been an All Black since 2014 and captained the Blues to their first title since 2003 when they won Super Rugby Trans-Tasman last year.

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Honourable mentions: Jake Ball (Green Rockets Tokatsu), Cory Hill (Yokohama Canon Eagles), Jackson Hemopo (Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars), Jack Cornelsen (Saitama Wild Knights), Ben Nee-Nee (Kamaishi Seawaves)

5. Franco Mostert

Club: Mie Honda Heat
Age: 31
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 51

Another member of South Africa’s World Cup-winning squad of 2019, Franco Mostert has become a veteran of the Japanese club game after joining the Black Rams in 2016. The current Springboks star then left to link up with Gloucester in England two years later, but returned to Japan in 2020 to sign with the Honda Heat.

Honourable mentions: George Kruis (Saitama Wild Knights), James Moore (Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu), Tom Franklin (Kobelco Kobe Steelers)

6. Pieter-Steph du Toit

Club: Toyota Verblitz
Age: 29
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 58

As the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year, Springboks behemoth Pieter-Steph du Toit is arguably the biggest acquisition of the League One off-season. Joining Toyota Verblitz from the Stormers, the 2019 World Cup winner will be hoping to get back to his best in Japan after an injury-riddled campaign in 2021.

Honourable mentions: Ben Gunter (Saitama Wild Knights), Ned Hanigan (Kurita Water Gush), Hendrik Tui (Tokyo Sungoliath)

7. Albertus Kwagga Smith

Club: Shizuoka Blue Revs
Age: 28
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 19

A key member of the current Springboks squad, Kwagga Smith returns for a fourth season with the Shizuoka Blue Revs, formerly known as Yamaha Jubilo. When he first moved to Japan in 2018, the 2019 World Cup winner balanced his domestic duties with the Lions in Super Rugby, but signed on with the Blue Revs on a full-time basis in 2020.

Honourable mentions: Sean McMahon (Tokyo Sungoliath), Lappies Labuschagne (Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay), Matt Todd (Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo), Liam Gill (Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu), Blair Cowan (Black Rams Tokyo)

8. Kazuki Himeno

Club: Toyota Verblitz
Age: 27
Nation: Japan
Test caps: 22

One of Japan’s key players at the 2019 World Cup, Kazuki Himeno returns to Toyota Verblitz following a one-off spell with the Highlanders in Super Rugby last year. The Brave Blossoms star impressed during his time at the Dunedin-based franchise and will be hoping to carry that form with him into the new domestic season.

Honourable mentions: Michael Leitch (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Isi Naisarani (Shizuoka Blue Revs), Tevita Tatafu (Tokyo Sungoliath), Amanaki Mafi (Yokohama Canon Eagles), Nasi Manu (Hino Red Dolphins)

9. Will Genia

Club: Hanazono Kintetsu Liners
Age: 33
Nation: Australia
Test caps: 110

An undoubted Australian great, Will Genia is back for his third season in Japanese club rugby with the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners. A Wallabies centurion whose test career spanned a decade and three World Cups, the Papua New Guinea-born star will be eyeing promotion from Division 2 to Division 1 come the end of the season.

Honourable mentions: Greig Laidlaw (Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu), Yutaka Nagare (Tokyo Sungoliath), Naoto Saito (Tokyo Sungoliath), Fumiaki Tanaka (Green Rockets Tokatsu), Augustine Pulu (Hino Red Dolphins)

10. Quade Cooper

Club: Hanazono Kintetsu Liners
Age: 33
Nation: Australia
Test caps: 75

At the centre of rugby’s greatest comeback story in 2021, Quade Cooper didn’t continue his fairytale return to the Wallabies on their European end-of-year tour. Instead, he returned to Japan early to link back up with Genia, his long-time halves partner, in a bid to steer Kintetsu to the top division of League One.

Honourable mentions: Elton Jantjies (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes Osaka), Aaron Cruden (Kobelco Kobe Steelers), Bernard Foley (Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay), Yu Tamura (Yokohama Canon Eagles), Colin Slade (Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars), Tom Taylor (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Brett Cameron (Kamaishi Seawaves)

11. Marika Koroibete

Club: Saitama Wild Knights
Age: 29
Nation: Australia
Test caps: 42

Among the stars of Australia’s 2021 test campaign, Marika Koroibete secured his long-term future by inking a lucrative multi-year deal to join the Wild Knights. As such, the Fijian-born flyer’s presence in the club’s roster is set to make the reigning champions all the more stronger in 2022.

Honourable mentions: Ataata Moeakiola (Kobelco Kobe Steelers)

12. Samu Kerevi

Club: Tokyo Sungoliath
Age: 28
Nation: Australia
Test caps: 38

A World Rugby Player of the Year nominee and an Olympic sevens athlete in 2021, much will be expected from Wallabies star Samu Kerevi in his third season with Tokyo Sungoliath. A barnstorming ball carrier, the Fijian-born midfielder should flourish on Japan’s fast tracks against typically soft defences.

Honourable mentions: Ryan Crotty (Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay), Hurimichi Tatekawa (Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay), Hadleigh Parkes (Saitama Wild Knights), Phil Burleigh (Kyuden Voltex)

13. Jesse Kriel

Club: Yokohama Canon Eagles
Age: 27
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 51

A long-serving Springbok who was also part of South Africa’s 2019 World Cup success, Jesse Kriel continues his second stint in Japanese club rugby with the Canon Eagles, who he first joined in 2020. Prior to that, the ex-Bulls star had spent a single season with the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes during the 2015-16 Super Rugby off-season.

Honourable mentions: Tim Lafaele (Kobelco Kobe Steelers), Dylan Riley (Saitama Wild Knights), Will Tupou (Toyota Verblitz), Seta Tamanivalu (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Nick Grigg (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes)

14. Israel Folau

Club: Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu
Age: 32
Nation: Australia
Test caps: 73

One of rugby’s most controversial characters, it can’t be denied the talents that former Wallabies star Israel Folau possesses. Those talents will return to rugby union for the first time since he was sensationally sacked by Rugby Australia in 2019 as he has signed for the Shining Arcs this season.

Honourable mentions: Joe Tomane (Black Rams Tokyo), Lomano Lemeki (Green Rockets Tokatsu), Matt Duffie (Mie honda Heat)

15. Damian McKenzie

Club: Tokyo Sungoliath
Age: 26
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 40

Rivalling Du Toit and Folau as the biggest signing of the new season, All Blacks star Damian McKenzie has joined Tokyo Sungoliath as Beauden Barrett’s replacement after letting his New Zealand Rugby contract run out. Set to return to New Zealand later this year, McKenzie will be targeting a League One title during his stay in Japan.

Honourable mentions: Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz), Semisi Masirewa (Hanazono Kintetsu Liners)

By Alex McLeod, Rugbypass

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