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Semi-finalists set to face off in opening round of Japan Rugby League One

Tevita Li. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

Japan Rugby League One kicks off in Tokyo on Saturday with several of the heavy hitters squaring off to start the new season.

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Defending champions, the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights host Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, while Sunday’s matches are highlighted by the clash between two of last season’s top four; beaten finalists Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath and semi-finalists Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo-Bay. There are three matches in Division One on each day of the opening weekend, with Divisions Two and Three also kicking off.

DIVISION ONE

Saturday December 17

RICOH BLACK RAMS TOKYO v MITSUBISHI HEAVY INDUSTRIES SANGAMIRHA DYANABOARS

Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo, 12pm (JT)

After an encouraging pre-season which included a win over the Sungoliath, it’s time for the real thing as the Black Rams meet the newly promoted Dynaboars hoping for a jump start to the new campaign.

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Coached by the former NSW Waratahs winger Peter Hewat, the Tokyo-based outfit has recruited shrewdly in the off-season, picking up former Wales international midfielder Hadleigh Parkes from Saitama, as well as second row Josh Goodhue from the (Auckland) Blues.

The biggest ‘catch’ is the 22-test English international Nathan Hughes, who has traded the Bristol jersey for that of the Black Rams in a move that could re-start the career of the Fiji-born backrower, especially after the change to World Rugby eligibility laws which allows players to return to their nation of origin. Hughes last wore the Red Rose in March of 2019 in the Calcutta Cup test against Scotland.

Parkes and Hughes will both start for the Black Rams, who were a quarterfinalist in 2021, but disappointed last term, losing their final five matches to finish just above the relegation zone.

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They will see the Dynaboars as the ideal opponents to begin their transformation back to playoff contenders.

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Back in Section One after promotion last season, the Dynaboars return sporting a fresh look. The well-travelled Glenn Delaney heads up the new coaching team, bringing with him experience from New Zealand’s NPC and Super Rugby, as well as the United Rugby Championship, from his time in Wales.

The 59-test former Wallaby Matt To’omua also has knowledge from both hemispheres, with the clubs’ prize recruit previously on the rosters of the Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels as well as the Leicester Tigers.

Although absent for round one, much will rest on the Australians’ leadership and all-round game if the Dynaboars are to keep themselves away from the relegation fight this season, but even without To’omua, they will feel the Black Rams are a game within their range.

Former rugby league star and 3-cap Wallaby centre Curtis Rona will debut for the Dynaboars after an off-season transfer from London Irish.

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Last Year: Due to a combination of Covid and divisional change, these two are renewing a competitive acquaintance not seen since 2018. While training games are not a reliable guide, with youngsters often rolled out, the Black Rams did beat the Dynaboars 24-12 in pre-season.

TOYOTA VERBLITZ v SHIZUOKA BLUE REVS

Toyota Stadium, Aichi, 2.30pm (JT)

After a positive pre-season – with the good news culminating in the signing of England’s 70-cap former Wasps second-row Joe Launchbury on a one-year deal – Verblitz begins the campaign chasing at least a semi-final return after a below par debut in Japan Rugby League One saw them miss out by seven log points, while finishing fifth.

Director of Rugby Steve Hansen has been forced to reassemble his coaching team ahead of the new season after head coach Simon Cron departed to take over the Western Force in Super Rugby.

Verblitz has gone to New Zealand for his replacement, picking up former Otago NPC coach Ben Herring, who also brings experience from Major League Rugby in the United States.

Herring and Launchbury join a squad with plenty of firepower headed by star Japanese loose forward Kazuki Himeno. The former Highlander was the best player on the field during the Brave Blossoms’ narrow loss to the All Blacks and will be introduced to the new club season from the bench.

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While Verblitz is resting Wille le Roux, fellow South African Pieter Steph du Toit faces a teammate from the recent Springbok tour, with loose forward Kwagga Smith the new co-captain of the Blue Revs.

Along with a useful pre-season, the Blue Revs have been bolstered off the field by the signing of a partnership with European titans Stade Toulousain which promises major benefits for the future.

Even though last season was blighted by four Covid-enforced defaults, including in each of the first three rounds, the Blue Revs were highly competitive, beating the semi-final-bound Spears, and pipped at the post by a converted try in injury time by the eventual champions, Saitama.

They are not to be underrated.

Last Year: After Toyota took the first tie by default, the Blue Revs were within five minutes of a win in the rematch, leading by two until a 75th minute try got Verblitz over the line 18-15.

SAITAMA PANASONIC WILD KNIGHTS v TOSHIBA BRAVE LUPUS TOKYO

Kumagaya Stadium, Saitama, 2.40pm (JT)

The defending champions will field a settled line-up as they welcome fellow semi-finalists Brave Lupus Tokyo, with the main changes coming in the international ranks, where midfielder Damien de Allende has returned to the club, while fellow South African Lood de Jager has replaced Englishman George Kruis in the squad, although he will miss the opening day due to injury.

As well as the two Springboks, the Wild Knights were well represented on the recent Japan tour, with seven players returning, as will the previously injured Brave Blossoms flyhalf, Rikiya Matsuda, who is back after having missed the end of the last competition as well as Japan’s November internationals.

One player who skipped the November tests to be fresh for the new campaign is star winger Marika Koroibete, who terrorised international defences midyear wearing the Wallaby jersey, after having done the same earlier in 2022 during his debut season for the Wild Knights.

Having worked on the finer details of his game with Wild Knights mentor Robbie Deans, expect the Fijian-born winger to be even more damaging in his second season, which is bad news for a Brave Lupus outfit that finished fourth last term, and led the eventual champions at Kumagaya before being over-run in the second half.

Todd Blackadder has added South African midfielder Burger Odendaal from Wasps but will largely rely on the same squad that last season won 11 matches.

Rising star Warner Dearns in the second row, former All Black centre Seta Tamanivalu, and the long-serving backrower Michael Leitch, will again be Blackadder’s key men.

Last Year: Two second half tries from Koroibete helped the Wild Knights see off a gallant Brave Lupus, who led by two at halftime and were tied 18 apiece until the 69th minute.

Sunday December 18

NEC GREEN ROCKETS TOKATSU v HANAZONO KINTETSU LINERS

Kashiwanoha Park Stadium, Chiba, 2.30pm (JT)

The man for all seasons (and teams) Michael Cheika gets his next project underway as the Green Rockets host the Osaka-based Liners.

The Argentina and Lebanon (rugby league) coach has been planning from afar wearing his Green Rockets’ Director of Rugby hat, but a training game win over an albeit development Saitama outfit offers hope, while the playing resources have been boosted by the arrival of the 72-test Wallaby halfback Nick Phipps from London Irish, alongside the widely travelled winger Taqele Naiyaravoro.

Very much a ‘citizen of the world’, the burly Fijian winger returns to Japan having previously appeared for the Wild Knights, alongside stints with the Waratahs, Glasgow Warriors, and Northampton Saints, as well as two tests for a Cheika-coached Wallabies side.

The acquisition of the pair adds to a core of experience up front which centres around former Wales Grand Slam-winning second-row Jake Ball, and the Maori All Blacks representatives, hooker Ash Dixon and backrow Whetukamokamo Douglas.

Kintetsu return to the top section as Division Two champions but will be without Wallaby star Quade Cooper for at least the first part of the campaign, after the flyhalf injured his Achilles during Australia’s opening test of this year’s Rugby Championship in Argentina.

His absence will be covered by former Hurricanes’ flyhalf Jackson Garden Bachop, while the 26-cap former Scotland lock Ben Turis bolsters the tight five.

In Cooper’s absence, much will fall on the shoulders of his usual ‘partner in crime’ Will Genia, who should relish a match-up with Phipps, his former Wallaby understudy.

Last Year: Separated by a division in recent years, the two clubs could not have had more diverse fortunes in the maiden Japan Rugby League One. While Kintetsu won eight of its 10 matches, finishing with a points differential of +315 as it secured automatic promotion, the Green Rockets’ only two ‘wins’ in the regular season were both defaults by Covid-stricken rivals. NEC split the promotion/relegation series with the third-placed Honda Heat from Division Two; their 33-10 success in the first leg giving them a comfortable points differential win, despite a two-point loss in the second game.

TOKYO SUNTORY SUNGOLIATH v KUBOTA SPEARS FUNABASHI TOKYO BAY

Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo, 2.30pm (JT)

Last year’s beaten finals Tokyo Sungoliath host the third-placed Kubota Spears with both sides looking for fast starts to reinforce their claims as championship contenders

The teams are advantaged by settled squads with the big change at Sungoliath seeing the departure of the competition’s top point-scorer from last season, All Black Damien McKenzie, who has returned to Super Rugby in New Zealand. He has been replaced by fellow All Black Aaron Cruden who transferred from Kobe.

Star wing/fullback Kotaro Matsushima is the other big name signing. He re-joins from French club Clermont Auvergne, having impressed for the Brave Blossoms in the interim.

Sungoliath supervising coach Kiyonori Tanaka has made a smart move bringing in the highly regarded Crusaders midfield back Isaiah Punivai as cover for Wallaby star Samu Kerevi, who injured his knee playing for Australia at the Commonwealth Games Sevens. Kerevi may not be ready until the tail end of the season.

As always, powerful backrow Tevita Tatafu will be a massive player for Sungoliath. He caused the All Blacks plenty of problems during October’s test in Tokyo, after scoring six tries in Japan Rugby League One’s maiden season.

Another Tevita, winger Tevita Li, will be on the try trail after finishing as the top try-scorer in this year’s NPC competition in New Zealand.

The Spears’ charge is led by the world’s best hooker, Springbok Malcolm Marx, who can expect good support again from Wallabies flyhalf Bernard Foley and All Blacks midfielder Ryan Crotty.

Last season, Frans Ludeke’s men finished third after having their title aspirations ended in the semi-finals for the season straight year.

Although the Spears’ need to make an early statement is probably greater, Sungoliath have been their ‘kryptonite’ in recent years, with Kubota not having beaten Suntory since they returned to the premier section in 2015. Their eight straight defeats include two semi-finals.

Last Year: Despite out-scoring Sungoliath by five tries to four, the accurate boot of McKenzie proved the difference as the Spears came up short by four points. Suntory held their nerve to win 33-29, despite the concession of a 74th minute try setting up a frantic finish. The loss proved pivotal, with the Spears subsequently missing out on a home semi-final by three log points.

YOKOHAMA CANON EAGLES v KOBELCO KOBE STEELERS

Spring Mitsuzawa Stadium, Kanagawa, 2.30pm (JT)

Sixth (Canon) meets seventh (Kobe) from last season’s ladder, as both look to put the frustration of last term in the rear-view mirror, by beginning the new campaign on a bright note.

Although they won 10 matches, and matched their previous best placing, the Eagles fluffed their lines at the end when a maiden semi-final appearance was a possibility. Even so, the move to Yokohama worked out well, with the team warmly received in its first year at their new base, while the playing roster continues to improve, firmly establishing the Eagles as a contender.

Springbok and Sale halfback Faf de Klerk is the biggest off-season prize, joining fellow South Africans centre Jesse Kriel, and goal-kicking whiz SP Marais as key figures. Marais, who only took up kicking duties last term after Brave Blossoms’ veteran Yu Tamura was injured, clocked a 92 per cent success rate.

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Kobe, who won the Top League in 2019, have brought in All Blacks midfielder Ngane Laumape from Stade Francais (Paris) to strengthen their backline threat.

Cruden’s move to Sungoliath clears the way for boom youngster Seungsin Lee to run the cutter from flyhalf, having made a big splash this year for Japan.

To help manage the 21-year-old’s workload, head coach Nick Holten has brought in the well-performed Beauden Waaka, who excelled for Taranaki in New Zealand’s NPC, as well as for the New England Freejacks in Major League Rugby.

Former Sharks, Ulster and Bulls backrow Marcel Coetzee is another notable signing while ex-rugby league winger Sione Tapuosi, who played for each of the Canberra Raiders and the Parramatta Eels in Australia’s NRL, is a potentially exciting addition. Tapuosi schooled at St Joseph’s Nudgee College, a nursery of great rugby talent in Brisbane, which can claim 25 Wallabies among its Alumni, including former skipper Rocky Elsom, Wallaby and Queensland great Paul McLean and recent test star James O’Connor.

Last Year: Fresh from a quarter-final finish in the last Top League, the Eagles arrived in Kobe still in with a shot of the maiden JRLO semi-finals but departed with those hopes over after a crushing 42-33 defeat. While the nine-point margin doesn’t look too bad, the reality was worse, with Kobe romping to a 42-19 lead before easing off in the last 10 minutes which enabled the visitors two face-saving – if not competition-threatening – converted tries.

DIVISION TWO

All eyes will be on the merger club Urayasu D-Rocks as the section favourites mark their debut with a trip to MIE to face the Honda Heat. Although studded with stars, D-Rocks could have had an easier opening, with the Heat themselves well equipped after picking up former Argentine captain Pablo Matera and Wallaby fullback Tom Banks in the off-season. Both will start on opening day.

This pair join the indefatigable Springbok second-row Franco Mostert, who will come off the bench, and the presence of the trio should ensure the promotion chasing Heat make life uncomfortable for Israel Folau and the rest of the D-Rocks’ big names.

Elsewhere, Kamaishi opens with a trip to Tokyo and what could be a difficult meeting with the Hino Red Dolphins, who twice put more than fifty points on the Seawaves last term and have added Wallaby lock Rory Arnold and the underrated former New Zealand Super Rugby flyhalf Simon Hickey to their roster.

Sunday should see the Japan Rugby League One debut of French legend Yoann Maestri, as the 65-cap Les Bleus second-row takes his place in the Toyota Industries Shuttles Aichi line-up that welcomes Shimizu Koto Blue Sharks to the Paloma Mizuho Rugby Stadium.

With former England lock James Gaskell now also making Aichi his home, the Shuttles could field an intimidating second row against a Blues Sharks outfit it narrowly beat by five in their first meeting last term before a blowout the second time around.

Saturday September 17

HINO RED DOLPHINS v KAMAISHI SEAWAVES at Tokyo, 1pm (JT)

HONDA HEAT v URAYASU D-ROCKSs at MIE,1pm (JT)

Sunday September 18

TOYOTA INDUSTRIES SHUTTLES AICHI v SHIMIZU KOTO BLUE SHARKS at Aichi, 2.30pm

DIVISION THREE

The debut of the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes marks the opening of the third tier, with the former Division One club dropping to the third section after parent company NTT consolidated its sporting operations at the end of the last competition, focusing the bulk of its professional playing strength on the new Urayasu D-Rocks club.

The Red Hurricanes, who have Aussie Matt Cockbain at the helm, begin their new life at home against the Kyushudenryoku Kyuden Voltex, whose main off-season news was the signing of the well-travelled former Brumbies flanker Colby Fainga’a.

While Fainga’a misses week one, former Black Rams’ legend Colin Bourke will take his maiden bow for the Red Hurricanes, against a Voltex side that includes the New Zealand-born former Scotland flyhalf, Phil Burleigh.

The other game sees a Hiroshima derby with the demoted Mazda Skyactives Hiroshima welcoming the Chugoku Electric Power Red Regulions to the Balcom BMW Stadium.

With the two sides having won just three matches between them last term, Saturday offers the chance for early local bragging rights as well as a positive season start.

Saturday September 18

MAZDA SKYACTIVES HIROSHIMA v CHUGOKU ELECTRIC POWER RED REGULIONS at Hiroshima, 1pm (JT)

NTT DOCOMO RED HURRICANES v KYUSHUDENRYOKU KYUDEN VOLTEX at Osaka, 2.30pm (JT)

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