Ardie Savea switches positions as new signings make Japan Rugby League One bow
The Japan Rugby League One season gets underway on Saturday when Kobelco Kobe Steelers host newly promoted Mie Honda Heat. Both are under new management, with Kobe’s Dave Rennie joining fellow former Wallaby coaches Robbie Deans (Saitama) and two-time Australian boss Eddie Jones in Japan, Jones remaining associated with Suntory.
Alongside Rennie, Kobe have also welcomed the return of All Black second-rower Brodie Retallick, who will captain the side after playing two seasons at the club earlier in his career.
The recently named World Rugby Player of the Year has arrived on a one-year sabbatical where he will re-unite with his former Hurricanes teammate, the wrecking ball ex-All Black inside centre, Ngane Laumape.
After scoring a hattrick in his second appearance for the club last term, Laumape played just twice more before injury ended his season.
Two of the remaining three matches on opening day feature sides with higher ambitions, after some headline making recruitment following mid-table finishes last season.
Sixth-placed Toyota Verblitz hand debuts to the All Blacks halfback combination of scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flyhalf Beauden Barrett, with the latter returning to Japan after he finished as the leading point-scorer in the final Top League three years ago, while based at Suntory.
After being used largely as a fullback by All Blacks coaches Steve Hansen, and his successor Ian Foster, during the last five years, Barrett has been returned to the number 10 jersey by Hansen in his role as Toyota’s Director of
Hansen has made a habit of big-name signings since he took over at Verblitz, but grabbing the two All Blacks centurions represents his biggest heist yet, with the pair joining former World Player of the Year and Rugby World Cup final Player of the Match Pieter Steph du Toit, and Japanese Rugby World Cup skipper Kazuki Himeno, on the club’s books.
The glamour new signings raise the stakes for Verblitz, who finished sixth last term, 11 points behind fifth-placed
Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo.
Toyota hosts a Ricoh Black Rams outfit featuring Japan’s star man from the Rugby World Cup, Amato Fakatava, along with ex-England backrower Nathan Hughes, who scored twice in the corresponding match last season when Verblitz needed an after the siren conversion to get secure the win.
Hansen’s former captain during his time coaching with Canterbury and the Crusaders, Todd Blackadder, has not been idle either in the off-season, picking up All Black flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and backrower Shannon Frizell, who will both start as Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo hosts Shizuoka Blue Revs.
It was Blackadder who gave a young Mo’unga his first shot at Super Rugby, while in charge of the Crusaders, and the seven-time Super Rugby winner will be out to repay his old mentor’s faith, having signed on a three-year-deal which has the potential to take Brave Lupus to the next level.
Toshiba’s All Blacks pair had a taste of what is to come when they appeared in the club’s final two pre-season ‘training’ games, but the Blue Revs promise to be a tricky assignment first-up, having landed a big fish of their own in the form of Tonga’s ex-All Black fullback Charles Piutau.
Fresh off representing his country of origin at the World Cup, after previously having appeared 17 times for New Zealand, Piutau joins an under-rated outfit that last year ended Panasonic’s five-year, 47-match, unbeaten run.
New coach Yuichiro Fujii will bring Springbok backrower Kwagga Smith and Maori All Black scrumhalf Bryn Hall off the bench as he plots to rectify the Blue Revs’ habit of letting games slip, which has seen 11 of their 32 games in League One lost by 10 points or less, five of which were dropped by the concession of points in the 75th minute or beyond.
There have also been two draws.