Former Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw will headline a raft of British and Irish players set to debut in this the Top League this weekend.
Laidlaw, a veteran of 76 tests for Scotland between 2011 and 2019 and a British and Irish Lions tourist in 2017, has been named to start for NTT Communications Shining Arcs in their season-opener against Honda Heat in Tokyo on Saturday.
Partnering fellow debutant and former Super Rugby star Fletcher Smith in the halves, Laidlaw is part of a large contingent of players from the United Kingdom and Ireland plying their trade in Japanese club rugby this season.
Given the financial riches on offer in the Premiership, Top 14 and PRO14, it has been rare to see players from Europe travel to Japan to play in the Top League in years gone by.
However, the competition’s rise in profile in recent seasons has led to numerous players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales sign on with Top League clubs for the 2021 campaign.
Many of them will make their first appearance in the competition this weekend, with the league finally getting underway after it was delayed by a month due to a COVID-19 outbreak among the Suntory Sungoliath, Toyota Verblitz and Canon Eagles squads.
For new recruits to the competition, kick-off has been a long-time, with Laidlaw telling Nikkei Asia that his move from Clermont to the Shining Arcs stemmed from a desire to “push the boundaries” in the latter stages of his career.
“It’s different to what I’m used to, coming from a sort of European style of rugby, where they’re a little more physical,” he said.
“It’s a great challenge here. In terms of the way they want to play the game here, especially NTT Communications Shining Arcs, they want to play as fast a brand of rugby as we can … It’s exciting for me to play in a different style.”
The 35-year-old isn’t the only player from the British player set to make his debut this weekend, with former England international Alex Goode named to start for NEC Green Rockets against reigning champions Kobelco Steelers in Osaka.
The 21-test playmaker is on loan at the club from English powerhouses Saracens while they battle through the 2020-21 season in the RFU Championship.
Starting at No. 10 on Saturday, Goode will come up against a stacked Kobelco Steelers squad that features former All Blacks outside back Ben Smith – also on debut – and Brodie Retallick, as well as Brave Blossoms stars Tim Lafaele and Isileli Nakajima.
The Blues will have eight of their 10 All Blacks from 2020 available this weekend when they face the Chiefs and Crusaders in a game-of-three-halves in Cambridge.https://t.co/QFi0PRdOT8
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 19, 2021
Elsewhere, former England and British and Irish Lions lock George Kruis will join ex-Wales midfielder Hadleigh Parkes in making their first appearances for Panasonic Wild Knights against Ricoh Black Rams in Tokyo.
Joining Robbie Deans’ squad from Saracens and Scarlets, respectively, the pair will inject 75 tests worth of experience into the Wild Knights side as they eye their first Top League title since 2016.
Others from the UK and Ireland – such as three-test Wales flyhalf Owen Williams, Irish loose forward Paddy Butler, ex-Super Rugby lock Murray Douglas and former Gloucester lock Tom Savage – could all feature this weekend when clubs playing on Sunday announce their teams on Friday.
A further three British players, headlined by former England flyhalf Freddie Burns, are also playing in the second-tier Top Challenge League, with the top four teams from that division promoted to the second stage of the Top League.
The 2021 Top League season kicks-off at 1pm on Saturday [local time] when Laidlaw and the NTT Communications Shining Arcs take on Honda Heat at Yumenoshima Stadium.
Players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales playing in the Top League this season:
– Greig Laidlaw (Scotland/NTT Communications Shining Arcs)
– Alex Goode (England/NEC Green Rockets)
– George Kruis (England/Panasonic Wild Knights)
– Hadleigh Parkes (Wales/Panasonic Wild Knights)
– Owen Williams (Wales/NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes)
– Paddy Butler (Ireland/Yamaha Jubilo)
– Murray Douglas (Scotland/Yamaha Jubilo)
– Tom Savage (England/Suntory Sungoliath)
– Sam Thomson (Scotland/Toshiba Brave Lupus)
Players from England and Scotland playing in the Top Challenge League this season:
– Freddie Burns (England/Toyota Industries Shuttles)
– Phil Burleigh (Scotland/Kyuden Voltex)
– Charlie Matthews (England/Kamaishi Seawaves)
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