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 B.
Saitama Wild Knights
The Saitama Wild Knights asserted their dominance in the 2022-23 season of Rugby League One, clinching the best record with an impressive tally of 15 wins, zero draws, and one loss. They commenced the season on an extraordinary note, notching 14 consecutive victories.
Despite their exceptional regular-season performance, the Wild Knights experienced a heartbreaking 17-15 loss to the Kubota Spears in the final on May 20, serving as the sole blemish in an otherwise stellar campaign.
Eager to turn the tide this year, the Wild Knights enter the new season with a hunger for redemption. Their formidable squad boasts 11 players who have donned the jersey of the Japanese national team, adding a layer of national pride to their pursuit of success. Among their ranks is the illustrious Damian de Allende, a South African powerhouse with a remarkable rugby pedigree.
Guided by former Canadian and Japanese national team coach Ben Herring, the Verblitz are set to welcome star players Pieter-Steph Du Toit, the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year, and All Blacks stalwarts Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett. During a press conference held on December 7, Herring outlined his aspirations for the upcoming season.
"We are really looking forward to the start of the league," Herring said. It's a great competition. We are really excited to get out there and put on a performance that sets the tone for the rest of the year"
He added, "We want to be the best team in Japan, we have a great fan base and we want them to be proud of every performance we put out there."
Captain Kazuki Himeno, boasting over 30 club caps and 32 caps with the Blossoms, envisions significant accomplishments for the Verblitz, particularly with the addition of new recruits.
"Our goal for this season is to be the number one team in Japan and to make sure that we win and give our best in each game," Himeno stated.
"Now that we have skillful players like Aaron and Beauden, I think that adds another layer of strength to our physicality and speed," he added, "so I'm sure that we can show you an exciting game of rugby this season."
Notable Verblitz players include Kenta Fukuda and Siosaia Fifita from the recent 2023 Rugby World Cup, along with Lautaimi Fetuani and Will Tupou, who first played for the Blossoms in 2017.
Hanazono Kintetsu Liners
Following a challenging 2022-23 season marked by one win and 15 losses, culminating in a last-place finish on the table, the Kintetsu Liners narrowly retained their spot in Division 1 with a crucial series sweep during the promotion/delegation rounds.
Bidding to chart a new course for the team, Shogo Mukai, former Japanese national coach (2001-03) and newly appointed head coach, assumes leadership with the ambition of propelling the Liners into the top half of the league rankings. In a tweet from the official team account, Mukai addressed points of improvement for the club.
"With a history of conceding numerous tries, [our] team could greatly benefit from fortifying their defensive strategies while leveraging our established sets to secure scoring opportunities," Mukai noted.
On the day of his official appointment as head coach on July 3, the team unveiled some new additions to the roster. Among them were Hiroto Kobayashi, a seasoned player with eight seasons under his belt with the Shizuoka Blue Revs, and Kiwi talents Andrew Macario, formerly with Super Rugby's Highlanders, and James Blackwell, who previously played for the Hurricanes, another Super Rugby club.
Semisi Masirewa, making a return from the Rugby World Cup with the Brave Blossoms, will play a pivotal role as a key veteran for the team. Having been with the club since 2017, his experience and contributions will undoubtedly be influential.
In addition, Australians Will Genia and Quade Cooper, both having donned the Wallabies jersey in previous years, contribute their expertise to maintain order within the Liners' ranks.
Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars
Coming off a 10th-place finish in the 2022-23 campaign, the Dynaboars are entering the new season with a determined mindset. They showcased their prowess in the promotion/relegation matches by convincingly dismantling Shuttles Aichi, solidifying their status as a competitor in Division 1.
Captain Kota Iwamura, embodying the team's resilient spirit as underdogs, expressed the team's determination in a summer press statement.
"The Dynaboars are the only team in Division 1 without a player participating in the Rugby World Cup 2023 France," Iwamura said. "That's why I hope as many people as possible can watch us come together as a team and fight as one."
Head Coach Glenn Delaney, entering his second season with the club, is driven by the motivation to attain improved results.
"We showed growth last season, building on our promotion and playing in a way that represented our supporters and company with pride," Delaney told reporters. "This season we want to grow our foundations in order to play with more consistency and continue to challenge our opposition in every contest."
Acquired in the summer, new addition James Grayson brings international competition experience from representing the England Under-20 team, making him a valuable addition to the youthful team.
"[Coach Delaney] was very clear with me on what he wants to achieve at the Dynaboars, and how I can fit into that and hopefully help the team with those ambitions," Grayson said.
He added, "I feel like I am joining at a really exciting time and I'm looking forward to meeting the rest of my teammates and staff soon and hopefully for a big 2023-24 season for the Dynaboars."
Yokohama Canon Eagles
The Eagles displayed a mixed performance last season, alternating between commanding victories like the 74-7 triumph over the Liners, but underperformed in challenges against top-ranked teams such as the Wild Knights and Sungoliath.
In the previous season, head coach Keisuke Sawaki not only achieved his goal of breaking into the top four but propelled the team to a strong third-place finish. As he enters his fourth year in charge, this season marks an ambitious pursuit of greater heights. Specifically, the objective is to progress to the final stage and secure a victory, aiming for a significant milestone in the team's success.
In an early December press statement, Sawaki expounded on the team's mindset of winning for the upcoming season.
"We must evolve into a team that showcases our strengths with composure," Sawaki said. "Therefore, our initial focus should be on reviewing our progress and gradually striving to transform into a winning team, even if it's one step at a time. This gradual improvement is paramount."
Distinguished players with international experience augment the team's roster, featuring the return of Springboks' Faf de Klerk for his second year, alongside compatriot Jesse Kriel. Noteworthy additions include Blossoms' top scorer Yu Tamura, and recent Rugby World Cup returnees Sione Halasili and Jumpei Ogura. Hailing from Australia, Matt Philip, and from New Zealand, Liaki Moli, also bolster the team's strength.
The BlackRams concluded the prior season in the seventh position, facing challenges in maintaining consistent performances and securing victories mainly against lower-tier teams. As they embark on the new season, the Black Rams aspire to surpass their previous year's standing, under the continued leadership of their captain for three consecutive seasons, Hinata Takei.
In an interview featured on the team's official blog, Takei acknowledges the areas that require improvement, emphasizing the team's commitment to elevating their game to the next level.
"As a team, we are committed to building upon the core elements of our DNA that have been integral since last year, establishing a strong foundation," Takei said in the interview. "Additionally, we recognize areas for improvement in our playing style and skills, and we aim to refine these aspects further."
Coach Hewat Highlights BlackRams' Goals
Head coach Peter Hewat aligns with Takei's sentiments regarding enhancing the team's foundations. In a video interview conducted during their off-season training camp, Hewat elaborated on the importance of establishing and reinforcing positive habits within the team.
"I think the biggest challenge for our team at the moment is consistency," Hewat said in the video interview. "We've got a reasonably young group and it's a day-to-day challenge for us in terms of bringing the right mindset and attitude to every session. … If we can continue to build on our consistency and our preparation for training, we're going to see that push through the game."
Prominent players in the lineup feature Amato Fakatava, who recently showcased his skills representing Japan in the Rugby World Cup. Additionally, the roster includes seasoned Blossom Amanaki Taiyo Lotoahea, former Wallabies prop Paddy Ryan, junior Wallaby Harrison Fox, and Kiwi talent Josh Goodhue. The blend of experience and talent contributes significantly to the team's depth and strength.
Author: Galileo Ferrari