With the southern hemisphere’s sights firmly locked on the upcoming Super Rugby season, it’s easy to forget that one of the world’s most star-studded leagues is just days away from commencing.
Most onlookers south of the equator will be eyeing up the Blues’ clash with the Chiefs at Eden Park on January 31 in what will be Super Rugby’s earliest-ever start date.
What has flown under the radar, however, is that a large contingent of the elite playing group that gave Super Rugby its star power over the past decade or so will instead be turning out for clubs in Japan this weekend.
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The highly-discussed Top League competition will get its 2020 campaign underway on Sunday, with some of rugby’s most recognisable names set to feature across all eight matches.
One of the key talking points throughout the year gone by was the massive wealth of talent heading to Japan from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa as the Top League changed its scheduling dates to accommodate for the World Cup.
The decision to move the tournament from the end of 2019 to the beginning of 2020 has led to a clash with Super Rugby, which has forever been held in the opening months of the calendar year.
By comparison to their Japanese rivals, Super Rugby clubs are far less empowered financially, which left them struggling to keep hold of their key players in the face of lucrative contract offers thrown their way by cashed up, corporate-owned Top League clubs.
Subsequently, the tide has seemingly turned in the power balance between Super Rugby and the Top League, as a plethora of world-class talent from the original SANZAAR unions have committed themselves to Japanese club rugby for the foreseeable future.
That much will be evident this weekend, as a raft of these top-tier players will take to the field in the opening weekend of the new Top League season.
So, who are the key players who have switched from Super Rugby that could feature in the coming days, and what teams are they plying their trade for?
RugbyPass looks at all eight matches from the first round of the 2020 Top League season and breaks down which the star imports could be handed a chance to make a name for themselves for their respective clubs.
Hino Red Dolphins vs NTT Communications Shining Arcs
Kicking-off the new season are the Hino Red Dolphins, who host the NTT Communications Shining Arcs at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo at the very early time of 11:30am.
On the back of a dismal 2018-19 Top League campaign, where they were lucky to avoid relegation, the Dolphins head into 2020 with a couple of new recruits that will be familiar among rugby followers in New Zealand and Australia.
Two-test All Blacks halfback Augustine Pulu joins Hino from the Blues, while Australian-born playmaker Jack Debreczeni jumps on board after a one-year stint with the Chiefs.
Together, the duo bolster the club’s small group of foreigners, which also includes ex-Blues, Chiefs and Sunwolves prop Pauliasi Manu, former Tonga captain Nili Latu, two-time rugby league international Chance Peni and 2016 Rio Olympian Gillies Kaka.
However, in the form of the Shining Arcs, Hino will have a very tough early assignment in their bid for improvement from their disappointing showing last season.
The Shining Arcs finished 2018-19 in fifth place, and are bound to be even stronger in 2020 thanks to the additions of numerous high-profile signings, with none more prominent than World Cup-winning South African hooker Malcolm Marx.
He is joined by former Lions teammate Sylvian Mahuza in Ichikawa, which also acts as the new home for inspirational Wallabies first-five Christian Lealiifano and loose forward Jimmy Tupou, who joins from the Blues.
The acquisitions of Marx, Lealiifano, Mahuza and Tupou adds depth to an impressive squad which already boasts Japanese stars Amanaki Mafi and Akihito Yamada, as well as former Sunwolves cult hero Willie Britz and ex-All Blacks lock Isaac Ross.
Ricoh Black Rams vs Honda Heat
Just a quarter of an hour after the season-opener gets up and running, the Ricoh Black Rams will get their campaign underway further south at Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka against the Honda Heat.
Beaten quarter-finalists last year, the Black Rams haven’t recruited as extensively as the likes of the Shining Arcs, but they still possess some strong offshore talent to complement the vast core of Japanese players in their squad.
Former Crusaders hooker Ben Funnell brings with him three Super Rugby championships worth of experience to the Ricoh set-up, while Kiwi-born playmaker Matt McGahan moves back to Japan after one year with the Queensland Reds.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 9, 2020
Experienced halfback Matt Lucas has joined from the Brumbies, and second-rower Daymon Leasuasu has departed the Chiefs to link up with fellow New Zealanders Jacob Skeen, Robbie Robinson and three-test All Black Elliot Dixon.
Ex-Wallabies maestro Berrick Barnes is likely to run the ship for No. 10, and will play a key role as a leader within the side, should he play on Sunday.
Honda, meanwhile, have a marquee signing of their own after they managed to lure in colossal Springboks lock RG Snyman, who follows his ex-Bulls teammate Paul Schoeman to Suzuka.
Snyman will likely partner up with former Highlanders and Blues second-rower Josh Bekhuis, with Japan’s South Korean-born World Cup star Koo Ji-won set to provide valuable international experience in the tight five.
Lomano Lemeki, who shone for Japan at the World Cup, is the headline act in the Heat’s backline, which also features ex-Highlanders and Stormers midfielder Shaun Treeby, former Blues pivot Baden Kerr and Aidan Toua, formerly of the Reds and Brumbies.
Panasonic Wild Knights vs Kubota Spears
In one of three matches to kick-off at 1pm on opening day, two of Japan’s most reputable clubs will go head-to-head in Kumagaya.
Led by former Crusaders and Wallabies boss Robbie Deans, the Panasonic Wild Knights have built a reputation as one of the most successful Top League sides in recent history, having claimed three of the last six titles.
It’s no wonder why they have enjoyed such success after taking a gaze over their roster for the upcoming season, which has been strengthened impressively.
All Blacks centurion Sam Whitelock, Wallabies great David Pocock and World Cup-winning Springboks midfielder Damian de Allende have all signed on for 2020.
That trio of acquisitions alone should be enough to establish Panasonic as one of the front-runners for this year’s title.
They join an experienced expat group in the squad, which includes ex-Highlanders props Chris King and Craig Millar, burly Australian loose forward Ben Gunter, and Super Rugby veteran Harold Vorster .
Panasonic also wield a number of Japanese internationals, many of whom – such as Kenki Fukuoka, Shota Horie and Keisuke Uchida – were standouts in the Brave Blossoms’ dream run to the World Cup quarter-finals.
One newbie of interest is Canberra Raiders wing Jordan Rapana, who has joined the Wild Knights on a short-term, cross-code deal which will see him return to the NRL upon the completion of the Top League in May.
Although they can flaunt an array of international and homegrown talent that few opposition clubs can match, Panasonic may have a tough time against Kubota, who have made three top-class foreign signings of their own.
Recently-retired All Black centre Ryan Crotty joined the Spears, and could go toe-to-toe with De Allende in a tantalising midfield battle, especially if Kubota deploy Wallabies pivot Bernard Foley inside him at No. 10.
The Frans Ludeke-coached club have also brought in Springboks No. 8 Duane Vermeulen, who claimed man-of-the-match honours in last year’s World Cup final.
He should provide Kubota with plenty of physicality, especially if he works in tandem with South African-born Japanese star Lappies Labushagne.
Former Brumbies first-five Wharenui Hawera joins South African trio Ruan Botha, David Bulbring and Gerhard van den Heever in rounding out Kubota’s offshore imports.
Yamaha Jubilo vs Toyota Verblitz
Kicking their 2020 campaign off in front of a home crowd in Iwata, Yamaha Jubilo haven’t been as busy as some of their opponents in reeling in top-tier talent from overseas.
Their biggest name is exciting World Cup-winning loose forward Kwagga Smith, who joins the side full-time from the Lions after initially signing with Yamaha in 2018.
Still, the Jubilo squad have been graced by the return of Australian pivot Sam Greene, who finished last season as the competition’s top point-scorer.
Richie Arnold, younger brother of Wallabies lock Rory, will also look to put his 2.08m, 127kg frame to good use in a league renowned for its lack of physicality, while fullback Ayumu Goromaru, Japan’s hero of the 2015 World Cup, returns for another season.
Despite their lack of work in the international player market, Yamaha will hope to go a couple of places better this year after finishing as losing semi-finalists last time round, making them a tough first-up task for Toyota Verblitz.
The visitors also fell at the semi-final stage in 2018-19, and will no doubt be aided by the presence of former New Zealand captain Kieran Read.
The 127-test loose forward joins ex-All Blacks boss Steve Hansen at the club after a lengthy tenure in the black jersey that spanned more than a decade.
Read is one of Toyota’s key acquisitions from a strong recruitment raid which took place over the off-season, which also saw the addition of long-time Springboks fullback Willie le Roux from Premiership side Wasps.
The 61-test star bolsters a healthy South African contingent in the Verblitz side, which features one-time Springboks lock Jason Jenkins, 17-cap utility back Gio Aplon and journeyman playmaker Lionel Cronje.
Kobelco Steelers vs Canon Eagles
A solid core of Kiwis makes reigning champions Kobelco arguably the most formidable squad in the Top League, rivalling the depth of talent that even the likes of Panasonic possess.
Coached by legendary rugby mind Wayne Smith, the Steelers are also captained by former Crusaders veteran Andy Ellis, who has formed a handy halves partnership with none other than World Rugby’s player of the decade, Dan Carter.
The former All Blacks duo are surrounded by a number of fellow New Zealanders who cemented their credentials at Super Rugby level, such as Hayden Parker, Tom Franklin, Richard Buckman and Matt vant Leven.
Kobelco’s most prominent off-season deal, though, comes in the form of All Blacks star Brodie Retallick, who has signed a two-year deal with the club in a massive coup that will make it very difficult for any other side to challenge for the title.
Retallick could line up alongside former Sunwolves lock Grant Hattingh in the second row when the Steelers host the Canon Eagles at Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium this weekend.
Midfielder Tim Lafaele, who played in all of Japan’s World Cup matches last year, and ex-Chiefs duo Hiroshi Yamashita and Ataata Moeakiola are the most prominent homegrown names on the Kobelco roster.
They should make life difficult for Canon in the coming days, with the Allister Coetzee-coached side severely lacking the hoard of household names that Kobelco can flex.
However, the former Springboks coach has secured the services of World Cup-winning midfielder Jesse Kriel, which adds to the club’s small South African population that is made up of the likes of fullback SP Marais and first-five Fred Zeilinga.
Zeilinga, the ex-Cheetahs and Sharks playmaker, will tussle with Japan pivot Yu Tamura for the No. 10 jersey, but with fan favourite Fumiaki Tanaka at halfback, it’s easy to see the Japanese duo being the preferred halves combination.
Anyone who watched the Sunwolves in 2018 will know the havoc that winger Hosea Saumaki can wreak, while former Reds forwards Ed Quirk and Sef Fa’agase relocate to southern Tokyo after spells with the Sunwolves and Highlanders, respectively.
Toshiba Brave Lupus vs Suntory Sungoliath
Following on from the Hino Red Dolphins vs NTT Communications Shining Arcs clash at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium is a bout between the Toshiba Brave Lupus and Suntory Sungoliath as part of a double-header at the venue.
The hosts, Toshiba, will be looking to make amends for a lacklustre display last season which led to them finishing just two places away from a relegation play-off.
Head coach Todd Blackadder has signalled his intent by obtaining 25-test All Blacks flanker Matt Todd as his blue-chip signing for the season, although there aren’t many other big name acquisitions to speak of.
Regardless, former Chiefs prospect Johnny Fa’auli could form a potent midfield partnership with ex-All Black Richard Kahui, who has been a loyal servant to Toshiba since joining seven years ago.
As former captain of the club, Kahui and Japan skipper Michael Leitch will provide immeasurable leadership qualities to the team and will undoubtedly be of assistance for the squad’s co-captains Yoshitaka Takanaga and Takahiro Ogawa.
Former Wallabies pivot Mike Harris will take the playmaking duties, and could form half of an all-Australian battle in the No. 10 jerseys should Suntory select Matt Giteau at first-five this weekend.
WATCH – Matt Giteau on being smashed in the 2003 RWC final by Jonny Wilkinson
The 103-test legend is one of six Australians in the Sungoliath set-up, with Olympic sevens hopeful Sean McMahon and barnstorming midfielder Samu Kerevi the other two Wallabies accompanying Giteau in Tokyo’s west.
Former NRL star Will Chambers is also in the mix, while there is also a noticeable Kiwi flavour in the side through the likes of ex-Highlanders trio Joe Latta, Joe Wheeler and Tevita Li, as well as recent Hurricanes halfback Richard Judd.
Under the stewardship of former Georgia boss Milton Haig, Suntory will be aiming to go one better this year after getting thumped 55-5 by Kobelco in last season’s final, and with such a hefty Australasian presence, which will be assisted by local heroes Kotaro Matsushima and Hendrik Tui, such an outcome is certainly foreseeable.
NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes vs Mitsubishi Dynaboars
Two of the Top League’s newly-promoted sides will go head-to-head in the opening weekend, as the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes host the Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Osaka in the second leg of another first round double-header.
Following on from the Ricoh Black Rams vs Honda Heat clash, the Red Hurricanes could hand a debut to their marquee signing Liam Squire, who has linked up with former Highlanders teammate Marty Banks after accruing 23 caps for the All Blacks.
Squire is the only foreign player with test match experience in the Red Hurricanes’ ranks, although lock Keepa Mewett has international experience after having played for the Maori All Blacks and against the British and Irish Lions with the Provincial Barbarians.
Ex-Lions duo Jacques van Rooyen and Lourens Erasmus bring with them plenty of combined years’ worth of Super Rugby experience, while South African-born Japan international Wimpie van der Walt will be called upon frequently throughout the season.
Keep an eye out for young Kiwi first-five Lincoln McClutchie, who has signed with the Red Hurricanes after missing out on Super Rugby selection despite playing a key role for Hawke’s Bay in the Mitre 10 Cup.
There isn’t much more star power in the Dynaboars squad, but securing the services of five-test All Blacks utility forward Jackson Hemopo from the Highlanders has gone some way to dispelling that predicament.
He is one of only three capped internationals in the Mitsubishi team, alongside former Japan prop Naoki Kawamata and ex-Fiji loose forward Deryck Thomas, but is part of a small collection of New Zealanders plying their trade in Sagamihara.
Michael Little and Matt Vaega will continue their excellent midfield partnership that first blossomed at North Harbour a few years ago, while Heiden Bedwell-Curtis has ditched the Hurricanes to deepen his financial pockets.
The well-travelled James Wilson will be the favourite to assume the playmaking role from first-five, but former Rebels and Northland pivot Daniel Hawkins will challenge him for that role.
Munakata Sanix Blues vs NEC Green Rockets
The final match of the opening round kicks-off at Level5 Stadium in Fukuoka, as the Munakata Sanix Blues play hosts to the NEC Green Rockets.
The home side could lay claim to being the favourites for this clash, given their breadth of overseas talent which includes the only Argentine player in the competition.
Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias has moved to the Sanix Blues after a four-season spell with the Jaguares and should be the prime operator of the No. 10 jersey.
It won’t be surprising to see Andre Esterhuizen outside of him at second-five after the eight-test Springboks man mountain ended his six-year affiliation with the Sharks to move to Munakata on a full-time basis.
One would think former Highlanders and Sunwolves centre Jason Emery and Karne Hesketh – the Japanese wing who sunk the Springboks with his last-minute try in Brighton five years ago – will be the leading contenders to join Esterhuizen in the midfield, while former Crusaders speedster Jone Macilai-Tori should be an automatic pick on the wing.
Up front, Australian-born No. 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco will be expected to continue the scintillating form he found himself in while playing for the Sunwolves last year.
That’s a task that should be made easier through the support of New Zealanders Dan Pryor and Mark Abbott, as well as three-test Wallabies prop Paddy Ryan, who joins from the San Diego Legion in Major League Rugby.
As for NEC, All Blacks cult hero Stephen Donald and Manu Samoa loose forward Jack Lam are the big names in a Green Rockets side void of much international experience.
Still, the Abiko-based club have players who have come through the Super Rugby ranks, including ex-Blues fullback Lolagi Visinia, former Fiji U20 wing Tino Nemani, long-serving Rebels lock Sam Jeffries and ex-Chiefs and Hurricanes flanker Sam Henwood.
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