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2023-24 Japan Rugby League One Season: Previewing Conference A's Six Teams

The reigning champion Kubota Spears look poised to compete for another title in Japan Rugby League One along with Tokyo Sungoliath and the Kobelco Steelers.

With the much-anticipated kickoff scheduled for December 9, the Japan Rugby League One season is poised to launch into a spectacular display of rugby prowess.

As teams finalized their preparations and fans eagerly counted down the days, the stage was set for an exhilarating start to a season that promises intense competition, remarkable plays, and the relentless pursuit of victory. 

This installment previews the six teams in Division 1's Conference A.

Rugby League One
Harumichi Tatekawa (with the ball) is one of the top impact players for the Kubota Spears, as seen in this file photo from a match against Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo in May 2022. (ⒸSANKEI)

Kubota Spears

The Kubota Spears Funabashi have etched their name as the reigning champions of Rugby League One, securing a hard-fought victory in the final against the formidable Wild Knights. In a nail-biting clash on May 20, 2023, the Spears emerged triumphant with a slender two-point lead, clinching the title with a final scoreline of 17-15.

Leading this powerhouse of a team is the seasoned veteran Harumichi "Haru" Tatekawa, a stalwart with an impressive 56 caps for the Japan national team. As captain, Tatekawa brings a wealth of experience and leadership to the field, embodying the spirit of the Orange Army. Alongside him stand a roster of formidable players with international credentials, including the likes of Bernard Foley, Pieter Labuschagne, Liam Williams, and Uew Helu, forming a dynamic ensemble of talent and expertise.

The driving force behind the Kubota Spears' success is their astute coach, Frans Ludeke. With an illustrious eight-year tenure with the club, Ludeke has not only cultivated a winning culture but has also emerged as a prominent candidate for the role of head coach for the Japanese national team.

Rugby League One
Japan's Yutaka Nagare, booting the ball in a 2023 Rugby World Cup match on September 17 against England, also suits up for Tokyo Sungoliath. (Stephanie Lecocq/REUTERS)

Tokyo Sungoliath

Boasting an impressive roster of international stars, including the likes of Springboks' representative Cheslin Kolbe, Wales' Gareth Anscombe, All Blacks flanker Sam Cane, and Wallabies' Sean McMahon, along with seven players representing the national Brave Blossoms squad ― Kosuke Horikoshi (team captain), Shinnosuke Kakinaga, Kanji Shimokawa, Naoto Saito, Yutaka Nagare, Ryoto Nakamura, and Kotaro Matsushima ― the Sungoliath stand as one of the most formidable teams on paper.

Despite finishing third in the 2022-23 regular season, the Sungoliath faced setbacks in the postseason, losing all their games and ultimately securing a fourth-place overall position. 

The recent signing of Sam Cane in November signals a transformation for the team, accompanied by a fresh mentality. Cane articulated his thoughts on the upcoming season and his new team in a press release issued in November.

"When the opportunity to join Suntory arose, I jumped at the chance… I am super excited about having the opportunity to contribute to Suntory's legacy,” Cane said.

Team captain Horikoshi echoed a similar sentiment in an announcement regarding his selection as this year's captain.

"In the new season, like [our culture of] Sungoliath, we will be hungry and enthusiastic and will take on the challenge as a team to win the title of Japan's best,” Horikoshi was quoted as saying.

Rugby League One
From left, Kobelco Kobe Steelers head coach Dave Rennie, co-captains Brody Retallick and WTB Rakuhei Yamashita and team director Masayuki Fukumoto attend a news conference on December 1 in Kobe. (ⒸSANKEI)

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Kobelco Kobe Steelers

Team director Masayuki Fukumoto revealed, "After finishing last season in ninth place, discussions on rebuilding the team led us to consider the appointment of a new head coach. Wayne Smith, a rugby coaching mentor and team ambassador, played a key role in these deliberations."

The Steelers are embarking on a new chapter under the guidance of their newly appointed coach, Dave Rennie, a former professional player from New Zealand and the Cook Islands. Rennie, who shared his aspirations for the team in an offseason press conference, emphasized a focus on improved conditioning and discipline.

"Every team aims to win, and we share the same ambition,” Rennie told the news conference. “To achieve this goal, consistent hard work is crucial. It is imperative that our players perform at their best each week, and we must build a team resilient enough to handle any injuries. I will strive to bring us closer to achieving this."

The team's captains for the upcoming season are Rakuhei Yamashita and Brodie Retallick. Yamashita, a dynamic wing, poses a threat in one-on-one situations with his ability to burst past opponents and score tries. Meanwhile, Retallick brings veteran leadership to the team, boasting over 100 caps with the All Blacks.

Several returning players, fueled by their experiences in the Rugby World Cup, are eager to make a mark. Jiwon Gu, Amanaki Saumaki, Seungsin Lee, and Ryohei Yamanaka all gained valuable exposure with the Blossoms. The roster also features notable names such as Ardie Savea, Michael Little, Ataata Moeakiola, and Isileli Nakajima, among others.

Rugby League One
Kwagga Smith (center), seen playing for South Africa at the Rugby World Cup against Tonga on October 1, is also a key member of the Shizuoka BlueRevs roster. (Benoit Tessier/REUTERS)

Shizuoka BlueRevs

After a disappointing eighth-place finish last season, significant administrative changes unfolded this summer for the BlueRevs, aiming to propel them higher in the league standings this year. The national Japan Rugby Football Union national team director, Yuichiro Fujii, has assumed the pivotal role of head coach, officially joining the team in August.

Renowned in the Japanese rugby sphere for his authored works, "Why did ONE TEAM come into existence? Empowered to combat the world," and "The Resurrection of Emotion and Courage: The Journey of the Rugby Japan National Team, ONE TEAM," Fujii brings his expertise to instill a winning culture within the club. The BlueRevs are poised for a transformative season under his guidance.

"Employing my past managerial experience with Sanix (Munakata Sanix Blues), as well as my roles in managing the Sunwolves and the Japan national team, I am committed to fortifying the team and nurturing player development,”Fujii said. “I extend a promise to our dedicated fans, revistas, and sponsors who consistently offer their support ― we are fully dedicated to giving our utmost effort in constructing a formidable team."

The BlueRevs are led by flanker Kwagga Smith, who makes a triumphant return to the squad following a successful Rugby World Cup campaign with the Springboks. Boasting an impressive record of over 30 caps for South Africa and having accumulated more than 100 points with the BlueRevs since the team's rebranding in 2021, Smith made a significant declaration during a summer press release.

"I'm looking forward to making it a great season with the many great leaders and players in the team,” Smith stated. “We will continue to build on our hard work to show our best performances to our fans in the upcoming season."

Key Acquisition for the BlueRevs 

In the offseason, the BlueRevs successfully acquired the talents of Tonga representative and former New Zealand player Charles Piutau. His joining the team is anticipated to bolster the backline significantly, leveraging his well-known explosive runs and playmaking abilities to enhance the overall capabilities of the squad.

Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo

In the 2022-23 season, BL Tokyo showcased a dynamic offensive performance, placing third in tries scored. They notably had four high-scoring games, tallying at least 50 points, with two consecutive matches boasting an impressive 60 points each.

The Brave Lupus boast a roster enriched with talent, including three Japanese national team players — Michael Leitch, Warner Dearns, and Jone Naikabula—providing essential veteran presence to the team. The team's depth is further enhanced with the inclusion of All Blacks stars Richie Mo'unga and Shannon Frizell, both eager to make a strong comeback after a second-place finish at the Rugby World Cup.

In a significant move, Leitch was appointed captain of the squad in November, and he brings a keen understanding of the evolving dynamics in this new season. The team appears poised for a competitive and compelling performance.

"It's been 10 years since I first served as captain of this team, but in that time I've had a lot of experience, including serving as the captain of the Japan national team,” Leitch said.

He added, “Therefore, based on my experience leading up to this point, I would like to focus on being the captain who leads the team and inspires everyone with my play without saying too much."

Under the coaching guidance of former All Blacks captain Todd Blackadder (1995-2000), the team has seen a notable evolution. In an interview discussing his involvement with the club since joining in 2019, Blackadder emphasized his focus on the mental aspect of the game.

"I want to prepare mentally to win,” Blackadder noted. “We've been working on solidifying our footing over the past three seasons, and we'll continue to improve consistency in our processes."

Rugby League One
South Africa's Franco Mostert, in action against Scotland on September 10 in a 2023 Rugby World Cup match in Marseille, France, is a key player for the Mie Honda Heat. (Benoit Tessier/REUTERS)

Mie Honda Heat

As the newly promoted team in Division 1, the Honda Heat secured a commendable second-place finish in both the regular and postseason of Division 2 during the 2022-23 season. This notable performance granted them the opportunity to compete for promotion to Division 1, a challenge they embraced and triumphed in both matches in a dramatic fashion.

Recently appointed head coach Kieran Crowley brings a wealth of experience, having been a former international player and winning the Rugby World Cup with New Zealand in 1987. Crowley is set to conclude his tenure as Italy's national rugby coach in January 2024, allowing him to fully focus on the upcoming Heat season. Having signed with the team in July of this year, he conveyed his high expectations for the organization in a press statement.

"I am delighted to be a part of Mie Honda Heat. Honda Heat has consistently demonstrated innovation and progressiveness, and I am thrilled to take on the role of head coach with them,” Crowley said in the statement.

He continued: “As we move forward, we anticipate an exciting era for [the] Heat. We aim to strengthen these foundations through close collaboration with the players and staff."

The Heat boast a lineup of noteworthy players, featuring the Springboks' Franco Mostert, alongside Ryo Furuta as the team's captain and flanker, Masaki Kondo, Argentina's Pablo Matera, and the Wallabies' Tom Banks. With a well-balanced combination of seasoned international veterans and emerging stars, Honda is poised to be the dark horse of Division 1.

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Author: Galileo Ferrari

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