Kiwis prominent in land of rising rugby

Jackson Hemopo plays for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Dynaboars in a Japanese Top League rugby...
Jackson Hemopo plays for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Dynaboars in a Japanese Top League rugby match at Chichibumiya Rugby Field, versus Canon Eagles in January last year. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
You would be forgiven if watching the Japan Top League made you feel as if you have gone back in time.

But gone are the days of it being a washed-up All Black retirement fund.

The season finally begins this weekend, following a Covid-19 delay, and is packed with familiar names.

Former All Blacks and New Zealand Super Rugby players are littered throughout the teams, along with a handful of current ones on sabbatical.

Names such as Kieran Read, Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick ensure there is plenty of high-end quality on show.

There are connections to Otago and the Highlanders in nearly every team, too.

That includes the likes of Ben Smith and Jackson Hemopo.

But there are also a ton of names such as James Wilson, Josh Bekhuis and Jake Paringatai.

New Zealand is well-represented on the coaching front, too.

Greg Cooper, Todd Blackadder, Robbie Deans, Danny Lee, Milton Haig and Cory Brown are all among those plying their trade in the league.

On top of that there are plenty of stars from other countries in action — Willie le Roux, Michael Hooper and Matt Giteau all having impressive test careers.

The rise of Japanese rugby in recent years has made the league a quality one which has impressed several Kiwi coaches.

"The game here is unrecognisable from five years ago," Deans, who has been in charge of Panasonic since 2014, said.

"It has progressed through the conditioning work, so players are much better equipped physically now.

"They have been exposed to Super Rugby [so] they are better equipped mentally ... and the intellectual property here is huge whether it be through coaches or rubbing shoulders with current internationals. And that’s where it has transformed.

"It used to be a twilight destination where players would go at the end of the careers.

"But now we have seven All Blacks from the most recent World Cup, six of the Rugby World Cup winning Springbok team, we’ve got five from the Wallabies, George Kruis [England] and Hadleigh Parkes [Wales]."

They were sentiments Todd Blackadder agreed with.

"One thing you saw during the World Cup was just how good the national team is and how they can compete with the very best in the world," said Blackadder.

"One of the things that is very clear here is the quality of the coaching and the competition structure itself is brilliant."

"The type of rugby that is played is free-flowing, attacking rugby, very much an attacking mindset and mentality. It’s a good standard of rugby and very competitive and can compete with most competitions in the world, and there’s a very good opportunity for it to be one of the best."

Japan Top League

Kubota Spears
Stars: Malcolm Marx, Bernard Foley, Ryan Crotty Southern connection: Justin Ives

Mitsubishi Dynaboars
Stars: Jackson Hemopo, Colin Slade, Southern connection: Hemopo, Slade, James Wilson, Greg Cooper (coach)

Toyota Verblitz
Stars: Kieran Read, Michael Hooper, Willie le Roux Southern connection: Rob Thompson

Suntory Sungoliath
Stars: Beauden Barrett, Matt Giteau Southern connection: Joe Latta, Tevita Li

Toshiba Brave Lupus
Stars: Michael Leitch, Matt Todd Southern connection: None

Shining Arcs
Stars: Christian Lealiifana, Greg Laidlaw Southern connection: Sekonaia Pole, Fletcher Smith, Louis Conradie

Red Dolphins
Stars: Pauliasi Manu, Augustine Pulu Southern connection: None

Red Hurricanes
Stars: TJ Perenara, Tom Marshall Southern connection: Marty Banks

Kobe Steel Steelers
Stars: Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith, Southern connection: Smith, Tom Franklin, Richard Buckman, Hayden Parker

Yamaha Jubilo
Stars: Kwagga Smith, Amaru Goromaru
Southern connection: None

Ricoh Black Rams
Stars: Joe Tomane, Elliot Dixon
Southern connection: Dixon

Canon Eagles
Stars: Jesse Kriel, Jan de Klerk
Southern connection: Sef Fa’agase, Jesse Parete, Callum Bruce, Fumiaki Tanaka

Honda Heat
Stars: Franco Mostert, Matt Duffie
Southern connection: Shaun Treeby, Josh Bekhuis, Danny Lee (coach)

Munakata Sanix Blues
Stars: Dan Pryor, Lomano Lemeli
Southern connection: Pryor, Karne Hesketh, Jason Emery, Jake Parangatai, Cory Brown (coach)

Panasonic Wild Knights
Stars: George Kruis, Hadleigh Parkes
Southern connection: Craig Millar, Shota Horie

NEC Green Rockets
Stars: Alex Goode, Jack Lam
Southern connection: Adam Thomson

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