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A star studded Test XV of Japan Rugby League One talent

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

Christmas is set to come early for rugby fans this weekend as one of the most exciting competitions in the world makes its highly anticipated return.

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The new-look Japan Rugby League One was an absolute hit during its maiden campaign last year, as the competition saw international rivals join forces and pitted former teammates against one another.

Saitama Wild Knights won last year’s competition after beating Damian McKenzie’s old side Tokyo Sungoliath 18-12 in the decider.

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Japan Rugby League One, which was formerly known as the Top League, will see a raft of international superstars take the field across three divisions.

The new season gets underway with a blockbuster between Division One rivals Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara DynaBoars on Saturday afternoon (AEDT).

But later that day, Michael Leitch’s Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo will look to record an early season upset over defending champions Wild Knights in what is one of the games of the round.

As the rugby world continues to count down the days until the start of the new season, we decided to name a Japan Rugby League One All Star XV.

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  1. Keita Inagaki

Club: Saitama Wild Knights

Age: 32

Nation: Japan

Inagaki has been a mainstay of the Brave Blossoms national team since making his Test debut in 2014, and has played a part in some famous performances. The 32-year-old came off the bench in Brighton during Japan’s history making upset win over the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup.

More recently, the star prop started Test matches against the All Blacks, England and France last month, and is set to play a crucial role in Japan’s charge towards a second consecutive World Cup knockout stage.

But first, Inagaki has a Japan Rugby League One campaign with defending champions the Wild Knights to focus on. The four-time Top League champion, not including last year’s title in the new-look competition, is incredibly valuable to every team he plays for.

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  1. Malcolm Marx

Club: Kubota Spears

Age: 28

Nation: South Africa

Malcolm Marx is the best hooker in world rugby, and he has been for quite some time. The Springbok’s star was named in World Rugby’s Dream Team of the Year after another phenomenal year in the famous green jersey. The 28-year-old is back for another season in Japan, where he’ll undoubtedly wreak havoc and make professionals look like schoolboys – as he often does at Test level.

Honourable mention: Ash Dixon

 

  1. Koo Ji-won

Club: Honda Heat

Age: 28

Nation: Japan

Another player with Super Rugby experience, having played for the Sunwolves in the past, Ji-won will play a key role in the Honda Heat’s Division 2 title hopes this year. The South Korean-born prop has also played more than a dozen Test matches at international level with the Brave Blossoms.

 

  1. Franco Mostert (RSA)

Club: Honda Heat

Age: 32

Nation: South Africa

The Rugby World Cup winning lock is back for yet another season in Japan. Mostert first moved to the proud rugby nation in 2016 when he put pen to paper with the Ricoh Black Rams, before heading north after signing for Gloucester. But the 32-year-old returned to Japan in 2020 with the Honda Heat, where he’s become a regular of their matchday squads. The towering lock is a set-piece specialist, and will quite literally play a big part in their season ahead.

 

  1. Joe Launchbury

Club: Toyota Verblitz

Age: 31

Nation: England

The former England international, who was at one stage one of the best second rowers in the world, is set for a new challenge in Japan after leaving Wasps. Launchbury joins an impressive squad which includes Springboks star Pieter-Steph du Toit and Japan’s Kazuki Himeno.

The 31-year-old is primarily a second-rower but has played blindside flanker to quite a high standard in the past. Launchbury infamously won Player of the Match after England’s loss to the Wallabies in the 2015 Rugby World Cup at Twickenham.

 

  1. Pieter-Steph du Toit

Club: Toyota Verblitz

Age: 30

Nation: South Africa

The 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year is set for his first season in Japan after a decorated career playing for South African sides the Sharks and Stormers. Du Toit was impressive again this season for the reigning World Cup winners, although was red carded against France. The 30-year-old can play in the second row as well, which makes him even more valuable to his new club.

 

  1. Liam Gill

Club: NTT Shining Arcs

Age: 30

Nation: Australia

Liam Gill is the one that got away for Australian rugby. The openside flanker was a schoolboy sensation with Gregory Terrace in Brisbane, and went on to star with the Queensland Reds before earning Test honours. But the 30-year-old has made his way around the world since leaving Australian shores in 2016, having played for both Toulon and Lyon in France.

Gill always had an incredibly high ceiling in international rugby, his Australia’s loss is now Japan’s gain. The flanker is lethal around the breakdown and can poach the ball with half a chance.

Honourable mentions: Lachlan Boshier, Kwagga Smith

 

  1. Michael Leitch

Club: Toshiba Brave Lupus

Age: 34

Nation: Japan

The depth at Number Eight across the competition is truly staggering, but Michael Leitch is a legend of Japanese rugby, and deserves more than just an honourable mention. The former Chiefs star captained the Brave Blossoms to their legendary win over the Springboks, and has shone in the famous jersey since. The New Zealand-born backrower is an experienced campaigner who can still pack a punch for any team he runs out for.

But the two honourable mentions could more than rightly included in this team. Isi Naisarani was one of the best players in Super Rugby during his prime with the Melbourne Rebels, while Kazuki Himeno is coming off a career-best campaign with the Brave Blossoms.

Honourable mentions: Isi Naisarani, Kazuki Himeno

 

  1. Faf de Klerk

Club: Yokohama Canon Eagles

Age: 31

Nation: South Africa

Behind French captain Antoine Dupont, and maybe New Zealand’s Aaron Smith, Faf de Klerk is the best No. 9 in international rugby. Pound-for-pound he’s one of the more brilliant players in the international game, who never backs away from a challenge. Standing at five-foot-seven, the halfback has a brilliant kicking and running game which make him one of the more exciting players to watch this season.

Honourable mentions: Bryn Hall, Nick Phipps, Will Genia, Greg Laidlaw

 

  1. Aaron Cruden

Club: Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath

Age: 33

Nation: New Zealand

It only feels like yesterday that Aaron Cruden was the next big in New Zealand rugby, and was thrown into the deep end of a World Cup semi-final after an infamous number of injuries to other stars. But almost 12 years on, Cruden has enjoyed a decorated career overseas after reaching 50 Test matches in the coveted black jersey. The 33-year-old will like up for Suntory Sungoliath this season, and ply his trade alongside some world class talent.

Honourable mentions: Tom Taylor, Issac Lucas, Bernard Foley, Otere Black

 

  1. Marika Koroibete

Club: Saitama Wild Knights

Age: 30

Nation: Australia

Koroibete is another player who is set to challenge himself in Japan this season after being named in World Rugby’s Dream Team of the Year. The 30-year-old was one of Australia’s best players once again this season, as he shone with the ball-in-hand. But arguably his highlight of the year was a phenomenal tackle against South Africa in Adelaide, where he charged over from the other side of the field to make the try-saving stop.

 

  1. Samu Kerevi

Club: Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath

Age: 29

Nation: Australia

Samu Kerevi might just be the best midfielder in international rugby ahead of the World Cup – although he has been out injured for most of this season. After starring for the Wallabies in three Test matches against England, Kerevi was included in the Australian Sevens squad for the Commonwealth Games. But a disastrous injury has sidelined the 29-year-old for most of the year. But when and if he’s back on the part for Sungoliath this season, he’ll undoubtedly be one of the players to watch.

Honourable mentions: Damian de Allende, Matt To’omua, Ryan Crotty

 

  1. Jesse Kriel

Club: Canon Eagles

Age: 28

Nation: South Africa

The World Cup winning centre is ack for another season with the Canon Eagles in 2022/23, after initially joining the club a couple of years ago. Kriel was once again impressive for the defending world champions during their end-of-season tour, and will look to carry that form into the Japan Rugby League One campaign.

Honourable mentions: Seta Tamanivalu, Vince Aso

 

  1. Israel Folau

Club: Urayasu D-Rocks

Age: 33

Nation: Tonga/Australia

On his day, Israel Folau has shown time and time again in the past that he can be one of the best players in the world. The former rugby league sensation made his return to rugby union last year in Japan, and went on to make his international return with Tonga.

Two-test Wallaby Taqele Naiyaravoro is certainly another player to watch on the wing this season, as he returns to Japanese shores after fives years away.

Honourable mention: Taqele Naiyaravoro

 

  1. Willie Le Roux

Club: Toyota Verblitz

Age: 33

Nation: South Africa

Willie Le Roux is still one of the most exciting outside backs in international rugby. The Springboks star is still a regular in their starting XV, having run out in the No. 15 jersey against England at Twickenham last month. Le Roux has been playing in Japan for a few years now, and had a previous stint that with the Canon Eagles after the 2015 World Cup.

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