Coming off the back of a break-through Rugby World Cup in Japan last year, it was always likely that there was going to a Northern Hemisphere hue to the new influx of players ahead of the 2021 Japanese Top League season.
Unlike the Oceania region and South Africa, who have been supplying the Japanese Top League with talent for years, typically European based players have looked to landing spots elsewhere on their home continent. The World Cup experience may have pulled back the veil of mystery that surrounds the land of the rising sun.
The biggest names in the sport have graced the JTL for years now. Unrestricted by budgets or a salary cap, the deep pockets of the corporate giants driving the sport in Japan have seen the likes of David Pocock, Sonny Bill Williams, Duane Vermeulen, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, Matt Giteau and Eben Etzebeth all enjoy sojourns in the far east. Renowned for speed and less so physicality, some have undoubtedly seen the Top League as an opportunity to rest the body while simultaneously topping up the bank account.
For whatever reason, less European based players have made the same trip. Yes; James Haskell, Shane Williams, Geoff Parling and a handful of others dipped their toes in, but their numbers have paled in comparison to their Antipodean and South African colleagues.
That may be changing. Earlier this year when asked if more English players could start heading overseas due to salary cuts and Harlequins Chris Robshaw,who bound for the MLR, said: “I definitely think that will open everything up.” This year, about 300 Test caps worth of NH players are heading.
Fellow England back row James Haskell had a word of warning for players heading to the league. “If you can go there, play twelve games and miss most of the pre-season, then it can be a great experience,” Haskell told RugbyPass “But pre-season in Japan lasts longer than the actual league season and it’s not a holiday camp – they work you hard.
“When I first went there I thought I would be a Godzilla-like character knocking people out of the way, but a lot of Pacific Islanders are playing in Japan and suddenly you are standing next to a 125kg Tongan.”
Here’s our effort at a XV of new entrants into the Top League and in the case of Charlie Matthews, the Top Challenge League, ahead of season 2021, and while still largely SH stock, it has something of NH twang this year.
JAPANESE TOP LEAGUE ‘NEW ENTRANTS’ XV
1 Chang Ho Ahn – Canon Eagles – via Sunwolves
2 Franco Marais – NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes – via Gloucester
3 Sunao Takizawa – NEC Greenrockets – via Austin Gilronis
4 Charlie Matthews – Kamaishi Seawaves* – via Wasps
5 George Kruis – Panasonic Wildknights – via Saracens
6 Franco Mostert – Honda Heat – via Gloucester
7 Liam Gill – NTT Shining Arcs – via Pau
8 Kyo Yoshida – Toyota Verblitz – via Sunwovles
9 Greig Laidlaw – NTT Shining Arcs – via Clermont
10 Beauden Barrett – Suntory Sungoliath – via Blues
11 Makazole Mapimpi – NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes – via Sharks
12 Hadleigh Parkes – Panasonic Wildknights – via Scarlets
13 Owen Williams – NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes – via Gloucester
14 Ben Smith – Kobelco Steelers – via Pau
15 Alex Goode – NEC Green Rockets – via Saracens
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Aaron Cruden – Kobelco Steelers, Matt Duffie – Honda Heat; Freddie Burns – Toyota Industries Shuttles; Colin Slade – Mitsubishi Sagamihara DynaBoars; Benhard Janse van Rensburg – NEC Greenrockets; Tom Marshall – NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes;
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