Former All Blacks star Ben Smith and Wallabies captain Michael Hooper will make their long-awaited Top League debuts for their respective clubs on Saturday.
Smith has been named to start on the right wing for Kobelco Steelers in their clash against NEC Green Rockets in Osaka this weekend, while Hooper will feature off the bench for Toyota Verblitz against Toshiba Brave Lupus in Nagoya.
Their highly-anticipated forays into the Japanese club competition has been a long time coming after COVID-19 outbreaks within the Toyota Verblitz, Suntory Sungoliath and Canon Eagles squads forced the kick-off of the 2021 season to be delayed by a month.
However, the Top League finally looks set to get underway over the coming days, with Smith, who joined the Steelers following a brief spell with Pau in the Top 14 last season, lining up alongside some familiar faces for the reigning champions.
The 34-year-old will be joined by a raft of former All Blacks and Highlanders teammates at Hanazono Rugby Stadium, such as lock Brodie Retallick, blindside flanker and captain Tom Franklin, first-five Hayden Parker and second-five Richard Buckman.
There are also a few Japanese internationals from the highly-successful 2019 Brave Blossoms World Cup squad scattered throughout the starting side, including centre Tim Lafaele and prop Isileli Nakajima.
Furthermore, former Chiefs wing Ataata Moeakiola has been named on the bench to face a Green Rockets side – spearheaded by former England first-five Alex Goode – that the Steelers will be heavily favoured to beat.
Hooper, meanwhile, is also in line for his first appearance in the Top League since embarking on his six-month sabbatical away from Australian rugby.
The 105-test veteran has been left out of Toyota’s run-on side, though, and will instead come off the pine against the Toshiba Brave Lupus at Paloma Mizuho Rugby Stadium.
That has denied Hooper the chance to start alongside former All Blacks captain Kieran Read, who has been named to start at No. 8, in the back row, although the pair could still yet feature together later in the match.
Earlier this week, Read spoke of his newfound friendship with Hooper as teammates after years of butting heads as captains of the All Blacks and Wallabies.
“We actually get along really well,” he said. “It’s probably a bit strange for a lot of people looking at it, but it’s been working well so far.”
Japan Rugby Top League 2021 Round 1.
Toyota Verblitz vs. Toshiba Brave Lupus
20th Feb. 2021
Paloma Mizuho Rugby Field
— ????????????? TOYOTA VERBLITZ (@toyotaverblitz) February 18, 2021
Hooper won’t be the only notable Toyota recruit making their first appearance this weekend, as former Highlanders midfielder Rob Thompson will don the No. 13 jersey alongside Japanese international and ex-Blues player Male Sa’u in the midfield.
In the forward pack, lock Michael Allardice will also make his debut since shifting north from the Chiefs, and will run out alongside World Cup-winning Springboks star Willie le Roux, who starts from fullback.
Toshiba have equipped themselves well to face their well-stocked counterparts, with Brave Blossoms captain and ex-Chiefs loose forward Michael Leitch and former All Blacks flanker Matt Todd set to go head-to-head in a back row battle with Read and Hooper.
— ??????????????? (@steelers_kobe) February 18, 2021
The midfield contest also holds plenty of intrigue, as Sa’u and Thompson will be marked by former Crusaders, Hurricanes and Maori All Blacks veteran Tim Bateman and three-test All Blacks powerhouse Seta Tamanivalu, who will make his Top League debut since joining from French club Bordeaux.
Elsehwere, ex-Highlanders and Hurricanes playmaker Fletcher Smith and 15-test Wallabies flanker Liam Gill will both make their first appearances for NTT Communications Shining Arcs, who face off against a Honda Heat side that boasts Springboks lock Franco Mostert in the second row.
In Narita, seasoned internationals Ryan Crotty, Bernard Foley and Malcolm Marx will all feature in varying capacities for Kubota Spears against Paddy Ryan and Lomano Lemeki’s Munakata Sanix Blues, while the Ricoh Black Rams will unleash Australian trio Issac Lucas, Joe Tomane and Matt McGahan on the Panasonic Wild Knights.
Teams for the matches to be played on Sunday, including Beauden Barrett’s Suntory Sungoliath, are expected to be announced on Friday.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now