While Super Rugby still remains a month-and-a-half away from kick-off, southern hemisphere footy fans can get their rugby fix as early as this weekend when the opening round of the 2021 Top League gets underway.

ADVERTISEMENT

Almost a year on from the cancelled 2020 competition due to the advent of COVID-19, the Japanese domestic season is set for resumption with a host of stars from around the world on hand to light up the league.

In anticipation of the tournament getting underway for the final time before a new professional league takes its place next year, we take a look at a XV made up of the best foreign talent set to grace the Top League this season.

1) Craig Millar (Panasonic Wild Knights)

Age: 30
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 0
Former teams: Highlanders, Sunwolves, Otago

Video Spacer

Video Spacer
Goodbye 2020 | RugbyPass highlights

The only uncapped player to feature in this side, Craig Millar stands as the most reputable foreign loosehead prop in the Top League through his four seasons in Super Rugby with the Highlanders and Sunwolves.

Part of powerhouse club Panasonic, the 30-year-old will be eyeing a Top League crown as he partners up with the Japan World Cup stars Asaeli Ai Valu and Keita Inagaki in the front-row.

2) Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears)

Age: 26
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 33
Former teams: Lions, NTT Communications Shining Arcs, Golden Lions

A member of South Africa’s World Cup champion side of 2019 and a World Rugby Player of the Year nominee the year before that, it should be no surprise to see Malcolm Marx in this side.

The 33-test star returns to the Top League for a second season after playing for NTT Communications Shining Arcs last year, but is in line to don the blue and orange of Kubota Spears this Saturday when they face the Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Tokyo.

3) Paddy Ryan (Munakata Sanix Blues)

Age: 32
Nation: Australia
Test caps: 3
Former teams: Waratahs, San Diego Legion, New South Wales Country Eagles, Sydney Stars

ADVERTISEMENT

It has been seven years since Paddy Ryan last played for the Wallabies, but his international pedigree puts him a level above every other foreign prop in the Top League.

Back for his second year with the Munakata Sanix Blues, the Waratahs centurion – who was part of the side that won Super Rugby in 2014 – should bring plenty of experience to a side that won just two of its six games last year.

4) Brodie Retallick (Kobelco Steelers)

Age: 29
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 81
Former teams: Chiefs, Hawke’s Bay

Now into the second season of his 18-month sabbatical in Japan, Brodie Retallick adds world-class talent and vast experience to a Kobelco Steelers that loom as championship frontrunners.

World Rugby Player of the Year in 2014, a World Cup champion the following year, back-to-back Super Rugby crowns with the Chiefs between 2012 and 2013 and a member of World Rugby’s Team of the Decade, there is little Retallick hasn’t already achieved in rugby.

ADVERTISEMENT

A Top League crown is something that has evaded the 29-year-old thus far, though, so expect him to lead Kobelco’s charge for a third Japanese crown.

5) Franco Mostert (Honda Heat)

Age: 30
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 39
Former teams: Lions, Gloucester, Ricoh Black Rams, Golden Lions, Blue Bulls

Returning to Japan for a second spell in the Top League, towering Springboks lock Franco Mostert comes into the Honda Heat squad as a like-for-like replacement for international teammate and departed Munster second-rower RG Snyman.

In doing so, he fills a significant void in the Heat’s roster, and will look to replicate the form that made him a World Cup champion with South Africa two years ago.

https://twitter.com/RugbyPass/status/1347754874100801537

6) Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Jubilo)

Age: 27
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 6
Former teams: Lions, Golden Lions

Now a long-serving Yamaha Jubilo player, dynamic loose forward Kwagga Smith is primed for his third season with the Iwata-based club since joining them in 2018.

The former sevens stalwart is another who clinched World Cup glory with the Springboks in 2019, and that experience will only add to the searing pace and brutal physicality that made Smith such a good player on the World Sevens Series circuit.

7) Michael Hooper (Toyota Verblitz)

Age: 29
Nation: Australia
Test caps: 105
Former teams: Waratahs, Brumbies

One of the Top League’s marquee acquisitions for the 2021 season, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper joins Toyota Verblitz on a one-season sabbatical deal before returning to Australia to resume his duties at international level.

The youngest test centurion of all-time has earned a name for himself as one of the game’s more resilient players after having to bear the brunt of Australia’s shortcomings in recent years as the nation’s skipper, but it’s that mental fortitude that will mould Toyota into title contenders.

8) Kieran Read (Toyota Verblitz)

Age: 35
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 127
Former teams: Crusaders, Canterbury, Counties Manukau

Joining Hooper at Toyota Verblitz is his former long-time trans-Tasman captaincy rival Kieran Read, who is back for a second and likely final season as retirement beckons.

A return to New Zealand to represent his boyhood province Counties Manukau last year will have served the ex-All Blacks captain well during the long lay-off between Top League campaigns.

Read’s partnership with Hooper makes Toyota’s loose forward contingent among the most dangerous in the competition.

9) TJ Perenara (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes)

Age: 28
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 69
Former teams: Hurricanes, Wellington

Linking up with the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes for a single-season sabbatical, veteran All Blacks halfback TJ Perenara brings with him a multitude of experience to help overturn his new side’s lacklustre fortunes from 2020.

Coming into a side that lost all of its six games last year, including successive 97-0 and 82-7 defeats to Kobelco and Yamaha, Perenara will be called upon to provide some much-needed leadership as he forms a halves partnership with either Marty Banks or ex-Wales international Owen Williams.

10) Beauden Barrett (Suntory Sungoliath)

Age: 29
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 88
Former teams: Blues, Hurricanes, Taranaki

The biggest name to arrive in the Top League this season is All Blacks superstar and two-time World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett.

Arriving at Suntory Sungoliath on a sabbatical deal just a year after he inked a four-season deal with the Blues, Barrett is expected to be an integral figure for the club as they eye their sixth Top League title and their first since 2018.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by RugbyPass (@rugbypass)

11) Makazole Mapimpi (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes)

Age: 30
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 14
Former teams: Sharks, Cheetahs, Southern Kings, Free State Cheetahs, Border Bulldogs

One of the breakout stars of the 2019 World Cup, Springboks flyer Makazole Mapimpi will return to action in 2021 with the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in the first offshore stint of his career.

After making a name for himself in Super Rugby with the Kings, Cheetahs and Sharks, Mapimpi went on to flourish for the Springboks, scoring one of his side’s two tries in their World Cup final victory over England.

Joining Perenara as two of the key imports in the Red Hurricanes squad, it’s that nose for the tryline that the Osaka club desperately need if they are to improve on last year’s efforts.

12) Samu Kerevi

Age: 27
Nation: Australia
Test caps: 33
Former teams: Reds, Brisbane City

Regarded as one of the most destructive ball carriers in international rugby, Samu Kerevi’s defection from the Wallabies and the Reds to the Top League was one hard-felt in Australia.

What was Australia’s loss was certainly Suntory Sungoliath’s gain, though, as the 27-year-old midfielder shone for his new side in 2020 and will be expected to do the same for the title contenders this year.

13) Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles)

Age: 26
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 46
Former teams: Bulls, NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, Blue Bulls

Back at the Canon Eagles for another campaign, Springboks midfielder Jesse Kriel stands as arguably the most important player in Allister Coetzee’s side.

Aside from Japan cult hero Fumiaki Tanaka, nobody in the Eagles squad possesses the wealth of experience the World Cup champion possesses, nor do they have the X-factor he has.

That means that if the Canon Eagles are to do well at all this year, Kriel will almost certainly be at the forefront of their fortunes.

14) Ben Smith (Kobelco Steelers)

Age: 34
Nation: New Zealand
Test caps: 84
Former teams: Highlanders, Pau, Otago

COVID-19 cut short Ben Smith’s time in France with Top 14 outfit Pau to just six appearances, but the silver lining in his brief spell in Europe has paved the way for the former All Black to move to Japan in the twilight of his career.

A World Cup champion and Super Rugby winner who was regarded one of, if not the best, fullbacks on the planet in his prime, Smith will join a strong New Zealand contingent at Kobelco, including Millar, Retallick, Aaron Cruden, Richard Buckman and captain Tom Franklin.

15) Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz)

Age: 31
Nation: South Africa
Test caps: 61
Former teams: Sharks, Cheetahs, Wasps, Canon Eagles, Griquas, Boland Cavaliers

Yet another member of South Africa’s successful World Cup squad, Willie le Roux is back in the Top League for a fourth season – his second with Toyota Verblitz.

Formerly of the Canon Eagles between 2015 and 2017, the 31-year-old spent two years in England with Wasps before returning to Japan to link up with the likes of Read and Hooper at Toyota.

With that much talent spread throughout their squad, Le Roux and his teammates will be expected to put up a firm challenge when they face Suntory in one of the opening two matches of the season on Saturday.

Mailing List

Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.

Sign Up Now