With a multitude of international stars from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa roaming the fields of Japan after switching Super Rugby for the Top League, it’s no surprise that the competition is now one of the most talked about in rugby right now.
Plenty of rugby’s biggest names are now playing their trade in Japan’s premier club competition – some are new recruits to the Top League, and others have been there for some time now, but there is no doubting the quality that this side possesses.
So, we have devised a match day squad consisting of the Top League’s biggest names and put them into one team to illustrate the star power that this previously unheralded tournament now demands.
Continue reading below…
1 – Pauliasi Manu (Hino Red Dolphins)
A one-time All Black who received a World Cup-winners’ medal after being called up to the 2015 squad as injury cover despite having never taken to the field at test level, Pauliasi Manu is now cashing in on his talents at the Hino Red Dolphins.
Formerly of the Chiefs and Blues, the 32-year-old shifted to Japan to play for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby last year, and is now based in Hino on a full-time basis.
2 – Malcolm Marx (NTT Communications Shining Arcs)
Although he was usurped as the Springboks’ top hooker by Bongi Mbonambi en route to their World Cup title in Japan last year, Malcolm Marx remains one of the world’s premier rakes.
The robust 25-year-old, who was nominated for World Rugby player of the year in 2018, joins the Shining Arcs from the Lions, and will return to the Johannesburg club in June once his playing commitments in Japan are over.
3 – Paddy Ryan (Munakata Sanix Blues)
With three tests to his name, former Wallabies prop Paddy Ryan is one of the few test-level foreign props plying his trade in Japan.
After making over 100 appearances for the Waratahs in Super Rugby, the 31-year-old returns to the Munakata Sanix Blues following a one-season stint with the San Diego Legion in Major League Rugby.
4 – Brodie Retallick (Kobelco Steelers)
Certainly one of the biggest marquee signings of the new Top League season, All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick has linked up with reigning champions, the Kobelco Steelers, on a two-season deal to add depth and quality to their star-studded squad.
Bringing with him a World Cup title, two Super Rugby championships, a World Rugby player of the year accolade and 81 tests, Retallick has already made a profound impact in Japan, as he scored a try on his Steelers debut in their 50-16 drubbing of the Canon Eagles in Kobe on Sunday.
5 – Sam Whitelock (Panasonic Wild Knights)
Retallick’s long-serving second-row partner has also headed to the Top League, although probable All Blacks captain-in-waiting Sam Whitelock’s stay in Asia will only last until the middle of this year before he reports back to New Zealand for international duty.
Still, the Panasonic Wild Knights’ acquisition of the two-time World Cup-winning All Blacks centurion as part of their elite recruitment scheme is commendable, and won’t do any harm to their title chances this season.
‘I’m still young and I thought all this mental health awareness stuff was all rubbish’
– Akira Ioane on how being left out of the All Blacks RWC squad for Japan 2019 hit him very hard https://t.co/6pTcvAMr9B
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 14, 2020
6 – Kieran Read (Toyota Verblitz)
Heralded as one of the modern-day greats of the game, former All Blacks skipper Kieran Read will almost certainly sign off his professional career in Japan after taking up a one-year contract with Toyota Verblitz.
Prolonging his player-coach partnership with the club’s new director of rugby Steve Hansen, the 34-year-old has two World Cup crowns, four Super Rugby titles, a World Rugby player of the year gong and 127 caps worth of experience to help propel Toyota towards what would be a maiden Top League championship.
7 – David Pocock (Panasonic Wild Knights)
Speaking of modern-day greats, the Wild Knights have also managed to lure legendary Wallabies loose forward David Pocock into their ranks to accompany Whitelock in the forward pack.
An 83-test veteran renowned for his world-class ability over the ball at the breakdown, Pocock joins Panasonic from the Brumbies in Super Rugby, where he will work under the stewardship of his former Wallabies head coach Robbie Deans.
8 – Duane Vermeulen (Kubota Spears)
After returning to his homeland for a season-long spell with the Bulls, damaging Springboks No. 8 Duane Vermeulen is back in Japan for another season with the Kubota Spears.
The 33-year-old first joined the Frans Ludeke-coached side from Toulon in 2018, and has rejoined the squad with 2019 World Cup and Rugby Championship winners’ medals, in addition to the man-of-the-match award he claimed in South Africa’s 32-12 defeat of England in Yokohama last year.
9 – Andy Ellis (Kobelco Steelers)
Now a veteran of Top League rugby, former All Blacks halfback Andy Ellis has been an integral figure of the Steelers squad for six years since first jumping on board in 2014.
The long-serving Crusaders star, who was part of New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup success, has since amassed over 50 appearances for Kobelco, and played a key role in their title-winning campaign last season.
10 – Dan Carter (Kobelco Steelers)
What more needs to be said about the man who was voted World Rugby’s player of the decade by the global rugby public last month?
Entering his 18th year of professional rugby, Dan Carter continued his trophy-laden career in style over the weekend, contributing a try and a further 13 points from the boot in the Steelers’ demolition of Canon in their season-opener.
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Interesting to see so many Kiwi 10's in the mix for this, and three-time Super Rugby champion Richie Mo'unga. If you have a certain level of attacking upside, defensive ability is less important in Super Rugby as a 10. ? #superrugby #crusaders #chiefsrugby #highlanders #sharksrugby #nzrugby #sarugby #allblacks #springboks
11 – Richard Kahui (Toshiba Brave Lupus)
Like Ellis, former All Blacks utility back Richard Kahui has become entrenched in the Top League since making his debut for the Toshiba Brave Lupus in 2013.
However, the 17-test star, who was at the core of New Zealand’s World Cup campaign in 2011 and claimed back-to-back Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs, is yet to bring Toshiba a record-breaking sixth Top League crown as their championship drought extends into its tenth season.
12 – Samu Kerevi (Suntory Sungoliath)
Challenging Toshiba for a ground-breaking sixth title is Suntory Sungoliath, who are in a promising position to achieve such a feat thanks to the signing of barnstorming Australian second-five Samu Kerevi.
The 26-year-old has prematurely left the Reds and Wallabies behind in search of financial reward in Japan, and kicked-off his tenure abroad in fine fashion by scoring a try in a losing effort against the Brave Lupus in Tokyo over the weekend.
13 – Ryan Crotty (Kubota Spears)
An esteemed member of the All Blacks since his international debut in 2013, 48-test midfielder Ryan Crotty will look to finish his playing days in Japan with a Kubota side who have recruited strongly for this season.
The 31-year-old joins Wallabies pivot Bernard Foley as two of the club’s marquee signings, with the duo likely to work in tandem throughout the campaign as they look to bounce back from a dismal 34-11 loss at the hands of the Wild Knights on Sunday.
14 – Gio Aplon (Toyota Verblitz)
With dimensions of just 1.75m and 78kg, the free-flowing nature of the Top League should appeal to the electric Gio Aplon, who enters his third season with Toyota.
Now at the grand old age of 37, the livewire former Springbok has plenty of experience to offer in Japan, although he wasn’t able to make use of it after missing Verblitz’s tight 31-29 loss to Yamaha Jubilo in Iwata four days ago.
15 – Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz)
Likely to go down as one of South Africa’s greatest in the modern era, Willie le Roux has joined compatriot Aplon and former international and Super Rugby opponent Read at Toyota from Premiership outfit Wasps.
Part of the Springboks’ World Cup-winning side last year, this season acts as the 30-year-old’s second stint in the Top League after having played for the Canon Eagles from between 2015 and 2017.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 14, 2020
16 – Ben Funnell (Ricoh Black Rams)
One of the few not internationally-capped players in this side, Ben Funnell has still garnered valuable experience by being part of a Crusaders side that claimed a hat-trick of Super Rugby titles.
The 29-year-old, who accrued close to a century of Super Rugby appearances between 2012 and 2019, is yet to make his debut for the Ricoh Black Rams, but could do so in this Sunday’s clash with the Sanix Blues in Fukuoka.
17 – Craig Millar (Panasonic Wild Knights)
The Top League’s lack of test-level front-rowers allows former Highlanders and Sunwolves prop Craig Millar to sneak a spot on the bench.
A member of last year’s Barbarians squad which fell to Wales in Cardiff, Millar’s presence in that squad is indicative of his standing within the rugby fraternity, and he should push for a starting role this weekend in Panasonic’s match against Toyota.
18 – Chris King (Panasonic Wild Knights)
Another ex-Highlanders prop who is now on the books of Panasonic, journeyman Chris King continues his extensive professional career – which first kicked off with Canterbury in 2002 – in the Japan.
In addition to having played for the Highlanders and Canterbury, the 38-year-old has also represented Otago, Southland, Taranaki, the Crusaders, Montpellier and Pau, and will be in the running for his Top League debut this weekend.
19 – RG Snyman (Honda Heat)
If the Honda Heat were looking for size, abrasiveness and physicality when they dipped into the international player market during the off-season, then they most definitely found their man in RG Snyman.
The 2.07m, 117kg behemoth, who is still only 24-years-old, was part of South Africa’s world champion squad of last year, and made his presence in Japan known with a destructive display in Honda’s 28-5 thumping of Ricoh in Osaka on Sunday.
20 – Liam Squire (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes)
One of the biggest names to have missed out on last year’s World Cup – albeit on his own terms – Liam Squire has picked up in Japan from exactly where he left off in New Zealand.
The 23-test loose forward, who was in scintillating form for Tasman in their dream run to the Mitre 10 Cup title in 2019, wreaked havoc in his NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, scoring a decisive try in typically ruthless fashion to help his side edge the Mitsubishi Dynaboars 31-24.
21 – Augustine Pulu (Hino Red Dolphins)
Capped twice for the All Blacks in 2014, a struggle to reassert himself as one of New Zealand’s leading halfbacks has led Augustine Pulu to Japan, where he has jumped on board with the Hino Red Dolphins.
He’s made an immediate impact there as well, having been named captain for last weekend’s match against the Shining Arcs, and he showed promise with new halves partner Jack Debreczeni in the 29-20 defeat at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium.
22 – Matt Giteau (Suntory Sungoliath)
There are a plethora of Australian first-fives who could have made the cut for this side, but the legacy of Matt Giteau is enough to win him a place in this squad.
A 103-test veteran, the 37-year-old has been at Suntory since 2017 after bringing his glittering time at Toulon to a close, and he’ll look to guide the Sungoliath one place better this year after losing to Kobelco in last season’s final.
23 – Damian de Allende (Panasonic Wild Knights)
While he’s unlucky not to be in the starting side, the talents of Damian de Allende couldn’t be ignored after the 47-cap Springboks midfielder committed to the Wild Knights this year.
The one-season deal is good reward for the 2019 World Cup-winner, who started in his debut for his new club on the weekend in what should be the first of many victories for a powerful-looking Panasonic side.
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