Japan’s Top League has taken many forms since its inception in 2003, but it has consistently attracted some of the best players in the world, which is today truer than ever.
Pushing the season back from January to February because of the impact of COVID-19 only served to heighten the excitement ahead of a season featuring a who’s who of international rugby talent.
From All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick to Springbok sensation Makazole Mapimpi, fans are enjoying watching Rugby World Cup winners playing alongside no fewer than a dozen Wallabies and more top-class talent as the 16 teams battle towards the Top League final at the Prince Chichibu Stadium in Tokyo on 23 May.
Under a revised format, the 16 teams have been split into two conferences, with results from the ‘regular’ season determining seedings for the extended knockout phase, which also includes the top four teams from the Top Challenge League – the country’s second division. The winners of the Red and White Conferences get a bye through to the next round.
The current season will be the last to feature corporation-led teams, as the Japanese Rugby Union has announced plans to introduce a three-tier pyramid system involving 25 teams in 2022.
Top League = Top players 🇯🇵— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) February 21, 2021
Who are you expecting BIG things from this season?
A history of big-spending has been backed up by plenty of silverware and the omens look good for another successful campaign after three straight bonus-point wins. Beauden Barrett is already carving it up for his new club.
Previous best finishing position: Champions (2012, 2013, 2017, 2018)
DoR/consultant: Eddie Jones
Head coach: Milton Haig
Captain: Ryoto Nakamura
Big-name player(s): Beauden Barrett, Sean McMahon, Samu Kerevi, Yutaka Nagare
Notable former players: George Smith, Matt Giteau, George Gregan, Fourie du Preez, Kotaro Matsushima.
A club on the rise thanks to former Super Rugby-winning Bulls coach Frans Ludeke and his astute assistants. A record of three wins from three in 2021 bodes well for them achieving their best-ever Top League finish.
Previous best finishing position: 6th (2004-05, 2008-09, 2009-10)
Head coach: Frans Ludeke
Captain: Harumichi Tatekawa
Big-name player(s): Ryan Crotty, Bernard Foley, Malcolm Marx
Notable former players: Joe Roff, Duane Vermeulen
A team backed by a huge motor company and a big budget to boot that has so far failed to turn that into trophies. The arrival of Steve Hansen as Director of Rugby and Michael Hooper and Kieran Read has instilled a winning mentality and they are unbeaten after the first three rounds.
Previous best finishing position: 3rd (2010-11)
DoR: Steve Hansen. Head coach: Simon Cron
Captain: Kaito Shigeno, Kieran Read
Big-name player(s): Michael Hooper, Kieran Read, Willie le Roux
Notable former players: Filo Tiatia, Ruan Smith, Takashi Kikutani, Keiji Hirose
Toshiba Brave Lupus
Over a decade has passed since the last of their three titles and few people are predicting the long wait will end anytime soon, even with Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch on their side. Todd Blackadder has a tough job on his hands.
Previous best finishing position: Champions (2004-05, 05-06, 06-07, 08-09, 09-10)
Head coach: Todd Blackadder
Captains: Takahiro Ogawa, Yoshitaka Tokunaga
Big-name player(s): Michael Leitch
Notable former players: Francois Steyn, Hitoshi Ono
NTT Communications Shining Arcs
Much improved under Hugh Reece-Edwards since the departure of the previous coach Rob Penney. Headline act Greig Laidlaw scored a try on debut and has settled in well at a team that seems to be heading in the right direction.
Previous best finishing position: 5th (2018-19)
Head coach: Hugh Reece-Edwards
Captain: Shokei Kin
Big-name player(s): Greig Laidlaw, Christian Lealiifano, Akihito Yamada
Notable former players: Alesana Tuilagi, Isaac Ross
Were relegated straight back down after their only complete season in Top League in 2008 and have already suffered a couple of heavy defeats. However, they showed plenty of character to turn around a 23-13 half-time deficit and beat Munakata Sanix 30-23 in their second game of the season.
Previous best finishing position: 14th (2007-08)
Head coach: Greg Cooper
Captain: Makoto Tosa, You Deryck Thomas
Big name player(s): Colin Slade
Notable former players: Shane Williams
Munakata Sanix Blues
Without the pulling power of some of the other teams, they struggle for depth at times. A disappointing start to the season so far with three straight defeats.
Previous best finishing position: 7th (2009-10)
Head coach: Cory Brown
Captain: Ryuichiro Fukutsubo, Dan Pryor
Big-name player(s): Karne Hesketh, Lomani Lemeki, Kose Ono
Notable former players: Jamie Joseph
A yo-yo team between the top two divisions. Without any major star names at his disposal, coach Danny Lee has a fight on his hands in making them more competitive in what is his third full season in charge. Three straight defeats at the start of the season leaves them bottom of the table.
Previous best finishing position: 9th (2018-19)
Head coach: Danny Lee
Captain: Ryota Kobayashi
Big-name player(s): Koo Jiwon, Franco Mostert
Notable former players: Rodney So'oialo, Digby Ioane, RG Snyman
#TopLeague standings and top points scorers after 3 rounds.— Rich Freeman (@FreemanrugbyJPN) March 8, 2021
Reminder - teams play 7 pool games to determine seedings for 20-team knockout tourney that also includes top 4 Top Challenge League sides to determine champion.#rugbyjp pic.twitter.com/8Wj94OmJ1l
Panasonic Wild Knights
The early season pacesetters with three wins from three, all with a bonus point. Star overseas signings, George Kruis and Hadleigh Parkes have already found their way onto the scoresheet. Coached by former Wallabies head coach Robbie Deans, the Wild Knights ooze professionalism from top to bottom and continue to set standards on and off the field.
Previous best finishing position: Champions (2010-11, 13-14, 14-15, 15-16)
Head coach: Robbie Deans
Captain: Atsushi Sakate
Big-name player(s): Shota Horie, George Kruis, Hadleigh Parkes, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka, Keita Inagaki
Notable former players: Sonny Bill Williams, Jacques Fourie, David Pocock
Big spenders trying to recreate the glory days of the late 80s early 90s when they won seven straight National Championships. Steve Hansen’s arrival, along with a handful of his former All Blacks squad, was a real statement of intent and the Steelers are, so far, living up to expectations by winning their first three games.
Previous best finishing position: Champions (2003-04, 2018)
DoR: Wayne Smith. Head coach: Dave Dillon
Captain: Atsushi Hiwasa, Tom Franklin
Big-name player(s): Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith, Timothy Lafaele
Notable former players: Dan Carter, Jaque Fourie, Andy Ellis, Daisuke Ohata
NTT DoCoMo Red Hurricanes
Came out on the wrong side of some frightful scorelines in the truncated 2020 season, but the arrival of Johan Ackermann as head coach from Gloucester seems to have instantaneously turned things around. TJ Perenara is thriving playing behind a rejuvenated pack and has played a major part in their record of three wins from three.
Previous best finishing position: 11th (2014-15)
Head coach: Johan Ackermann
Captain: Lourens Erasmus
Big-name player(s): TJ Perenara, Makazole Mapimpi, Wimpie Vanderwalt
Notable former players: Handre Pollard, Eben Etzebeth, Liam Squire
Often the bridesmaid of Japanese rugby, they won the National Championship in 2014-15 and will be desperate to send Rugby World Cup 2015 hero Ayumu Goromaru on his way to retirement with a first Top League title.
Previous best finishing position: Runners-up (2004-05, 14-15, 16-17)
DoR: Takanobu Horikawa. Head coach: Naoya Okubo
Captain: Yuya Oda
Big-name player(s): Ayumu Goromaru, Kwagga Smith
Notable former players: Jerry Collins
Ricoh Black Rams
Some big-name foreigners have worn the jersey in the past but a lack of depth has meant they have never really challenged the league’s big hitters. After a 55-14 opening day defeat to the Wild Knights, they recovered well to earn a narrow 23-22 win at Yamaha before losing out 22-17 to the unbeaten Red Hurricanes.
Previous best finishing position: 6th (2016-17)
DoR: Hiroyuki Kamitori. Head coach: Damien HillCaptain: Takeshi Mabuchi
Big-name player(s): Netani Vakayalia, Matt Lucas
Notable former players: Ma’a Nonu, Stephen Larkham, James Haskell, Berrick Barnes
A relatively new team that accelerated through the lower divisions before reaching the Top League in 2012. Inconsistency has prevented them from making much of an impression since then. Former Springbok head coach Allister Coetzee left his position in April 2020 and has been replaced by Keisuke Sawaki. Three straight defeats is not the start he’d have wished for.
Previous best finishing position: 6th (2015-16)
Head coach: Keisuke Sawaki
Captain: Yu Tamura
Big-name player(s): Jesse Kriel, Yu Tamura, Fumiaki Tanaka
Notable former players: Rynier Bernardo, Fred Zelinga
NEC Green Rockets
Before the start of the Top League, they were one of the strongest teams in the country. But while others have moved on, the Green Rockets have failed to fire. Only points difference is keeping them off the foot of the table after three straight defeats.
Previous best finishing position: 3rd (2004-5, 05-6)
Head coach: Ryota Asano
Captain: Ryoi Kamei, Daiki Nakajima
Big-name player(s): Alex Goode, Jack Lam
Notable former players: Stephen Donald, Jaco van der Westhuizen, John Kirwan
Hino Red Dolphins
Reached the Top League in 2018 to become the division’s first new team since the Canon Eagles in 2012/13. They’ve struggled to keep pace with the more established teams and another hard season looks in prospect after defeats to Yamaha Jubilo, Wild Knights and Kobe Steelers.
Previous best finishing position: 14th (2018-19)
Head coach: Takuro Miuchi
Captain: Kyosuke Horie, Augustine Pulu
Big-name player(s): Nili Latu, Augustine Pulu, Takuma Asahara, Takeshi Kizu
Notable former players: Rene Ranger, William Tupou, Samuela Anise